The day Elleray went to the Cup final in disguise

The whistle blower: Errant boys brought to book by a 'beak' of disarming honesty

"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." Even the great G B Shaw, however, might have been given pause for thought by David Elleray, Harrow housemaster and international football referee (retired). Elleray could - referee, that is - and did.

"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." Even the great G B Shaw, however, might have been given pause for thought by David Elleray, Harrow housemaster and international football referee (retired). Elleray could - referee, that is - and did. There was no thought in his mind of geography essays and pastoral care in the days when he would dress up in refereeing kit to enjoy Match of the Day all the more. His only ambition at that stage, formulated as a teenager watching England's Jack Taylor take charge of the 1974 World Cup final, was to do the same 24 years later.

But that was a time when "professional referees" were merely a topic for a newspaper column on a quiet day. The men in black needed another trade, and with no inclination to follow Taylor by working in a butcher's shop, the young Elleray undertook work experience at a primary school and decided teaching would fit the bill. A constant struggle to balance that career with the demands of refereeing all over the world is one of the themes of an entertaining autobiography* that he wrote during last season, his first after retiring at the compulsory age of 48.

Those who have the stereotypical view of him as a public-school man pompously lecturing the muddied oafs will be surprised to learn that another of the book's motifs is a rather touching vulnerability that emerges from time to time - often, for some reason, at White Hart Lane. A third is the eventual frustration involving what should have been triple peaks of the 1994 FA Cup final, Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.

It was at Tottenham that Elleray sat in the dressing room at half-time during a game against Luton Town in 1990 feeling "completely broken" and seriously contemplating asking a linesman to take over. In a wild first half he had sent off the home team's Pat van den Hauwe and Nayim, and might have done the same to Paul Gascoigne for verbal abuse in the tunnel but "could not find the courage to dismiss him".

In a derby against Arsenal on the same ground in 1999, even with another nine years' experience behind him, he experienced the frightening feeling of simply not being able to control the players. "That was pretty well the only game I officiated in where I just felt the yellow card wasn't having any effect," he recalled last week. "It was like a teacher having a class who are not interested in your authority, no matter what you do."

And what does a teacher, or referee, do in those circumstances? "You just have to keep going. It really is you or them and if you buckle, you've lost it. If it means sending three players off, you've got to do it." (In that instance, he settled for two, Martin Keown and Fredrik Ljungberg.)

The image of a beak summoning young miscreants for punishment has proved irresistible to football commentators and caption-writers down the years, but Elleray feels there are some useful comparisons to be made between the two jobs, which he has used advantageously in both: "There are lessons you can learn about handling a group, spotting the troublemaker or the one whom the group will follow. Then there's the whole balance of disciplinary sanctions, and sacrificing short-term popularity for long-term respect. If you're respected, you can become liked and popular; if you start off being popular, you often end up not being respected."

For all Elleray's teenaged ambitions, refereeing eventually became secondary to teaching, if only because he was forever at the mercy of (remarkably sympathetic) Harrow headmasters being asked to agree to yet more time off. So a month at the 1998 World Cup in France, which he had once set his heart on, became impractical. Euro 96 proved possible, but was a dreadful anticlimax, as he fell between the two stools of British and European standards of officiating when booking 10 players in the group match between Germany and the Czech Republic: the press lambasted him as card-happy, Uefa's observer said some of the yellows should have been red, and did not recommend any further games.

For most English referees, the FA Cup final is the pinnacle. Imagine then the chagrin of one who reaches it before his 40th birthday only to find it becomes the answer to the question, "What was your worst mistake?" The error was awarding Manchester United a penalty against Chelsea, when Andrei Kanchelskis fell over. "Somehow in my memory, the whole day comes down to one decision," Elleray says sadly. The fact that Chelsea conceded three other goals did not deflect the fury of their supporters, one of whom spat in his face from the VIP area as he went up to receive his medal. Then came the telephone calls to his bedroom at night, every hour on the hour.

Any lingering gratitude from United supporters failed to survive the red card in a critical championship game at Anfield shown to Denis Irwin, who therefore missed the 1998 Cup final. This time there were death threats and, having promised to attend the final with close friends, Elleray did so in a bizarre disguise of false beard and moustache, baseball cap and sunglasses.

Not surprisingly, he lists personal abuse as one of the things he does not miss in retirement, along with training and sitting on the M1 or M6 on a Friday evening. "But I do miss the adrenalin rush and waking up on Saturday morning with that little knot in the stomach."

Free at last to speak out, in a manner frowned upon for practising referees, he is pleasingly prepared to name names in conversation and in print. The three worst tackles of his career were by Van den Hauwe in that Luton game, Jürgen Kohler for Germany against Brazil, and Roy Keane on Manchester City's Alf Inge Haaland, which almost caught a stunned Elleray out: "It was a game where nothing had been going on, there hadn't been a single card, and suddenly I'm thinking, 'Is that as bad as I thought it was?' "

Gary Mabbutt and Gianfranco Zola were a gentleman's gentlemen, while Gascoigne, Dennis Wise and Robbie Savage come into the category of "enjoyable rogues"; but Irwin and Nigel Winterburn were the most miserable players to handle and Darren Anderton, unexpectedly, is the top moaner, closely followed by Gary Neville and Peter Schmeichel. It takes all sorts. "I have been very lucky," his book concludes. And who among us would not like to make those the final words of their life story?

¿ 'The Man In The Middle' by David Elleray (Time Warner, £16.99)

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little