Andy D'Urso: Abuse, snarls and sandwiches - a day in the life of a referee

For Leicester City and Manchester City at the Walkers Stadium today, the stakes could hardly be higher. Relegation for Leicester is more probability than possibility, and for Man City the possibility has turned from remote to distinct. Should one side win, the pleasure will be compounded by the other team's failure. It is, as the pundits say, a real six-pointer.

For Leicester City and Manchester City at the Walkers Stadium today, the stakes could hardly be higher. Relegation for Leicester is more probability than possibility, and for Man City the possibility has turned from remote to distinct. Should one side win, the pleasure will be compounded by the other team's failure. It is, as the pundits say, a real six-pointer.

The man in the middle of this hugely significant match is to be Andy D'Urso, of Billericay. Keen football fans always know where referees come from. Even now, I know nothing of Treorchy except that it was the home town of Clive Thomas. Say "Graham Poll" to any football anorak and the chances are that he will say "Tring" back.

It is a strange phenomenon, and stranger still when you consider that we know hardly anything else of referees. What do they do before a game? Do they consort with the players afterwards? Do they listen to radio phone-ins in the car on the way home, squeezing the steering-wheel a little tighter as their arch-critic Alan Green, of Radio Five Live, cranks up the abuse?

For the answers to these and other questions I have come to the Holiday Inn, Wolverhampton. It is 10am on Saturday 17 April, an hour before D'Urso's day is due to start in earnest with the arrival of his three fellow officials for the standard pre-match pep talk.

The match is Wolves v Middlesbrough, and one of his assistants is Roy Burton, who was also running the line on the most infamous day in D'Urso's refereeing career, also involving Middlesbrough.

It is D'Urso's destiny to be forever linked in the football fan's mind not only with Billericay, but also with Roy Keane. He was the luckless referee who awarded a penalty for Middlesbrough against Manchester United on 29 January 2000, at Old Trafford. The United players reacted as you might now expect a bunch of mujahedin to react if George W Bush wandered into their midst. Keane was memorably photographed in mid-snarl, his neck like a relief map of Greater Manchester, so prominent were the furiously throbbing veins. It was not Keane's finest hour, but then it wasn't D'Urso's either.

There is nothing he would change in his refereeing career, he intimates, no wrongly-given penalty or mistaken sending-off, before he would change his actions that day.

"It was my first season in the Premier League, my first time refereeing Manchester United and my first time at Old Trafford. With more experience I would have stood my ground. I kept saying 'go away', but the further back I walked the more they walked on. A more experienced referee would not have retreated. But there are no grudges. I've refereed Roy Keane on a number of occasions since without a problem."

All the same, Keane has never apologised. Indeed, when he next saw D'Urso he reiterated, in what I imagine was pretty fluent Anglo-Saxon for a Celt, that it should not have been a penalty. But that was not how they saw it from the Middlesbrough dug-out. After the match, which finished 1-0 to United, D'Urso was buttonholed by Boro's then-assistant manager, Viv Anderson. He asked why Jaap Stam, the defender penalised for his tackle on Juninho, had not been sent off?

"In hindsight, I probably should have sent Stam off," D'Urso says now. "I told Viv Anderson that I'd been distracted." That was one way of putting it, with several fit young men looking like they wanted to tear him limb from limb, and 60,000 people roaring them on. And now he was getting harangued by the other side, too. He could have been forgiven for hiding in an Old Trafford broom cupboard until everyone had gone home.

Four seasons on, he knows that he would no longer let players intimidate him as they did that day. Molineux can expect a calm and experienced referee, which is how it turns out, a Sunday newspaper judging his performance in the 2-0 home win as "unfussy".

At 11am today, as last Saturday, he will firstly tell his fellow-officials what they already know, that there is a crucial relegation battle ahead. He will ask them to judge their involvement according to the mood of the game, and to make sure they share his "wavelength". He will also brief them on any enmity between Leicester and Man City. Last week he reminded his colleagues of a previous fracas between Paul Butler, of Wolves, and Danny Mills, of Boro.

It is a reasonable bet, too, that the four men will talk about diving, the hot topic among referees, rendered even hotter by Claude Makelele's sly theatrics in Tuesday's Champions' League semi-final.

"At the end of the day you're accusing them of cheating," D'Urso says, "and I know I don't like being called a cheat, so you have to be correct. I remember cautioning a player in a Football League game for diving, but I later saw it on TV and I got it completely wrong. Sometimes player reaction tells you you've got it wrong."

The troupe of officials will arrive at the Walkers Stadium today at around 12.45pm. D'Urso will go straight out to look at the pitch, making sure that the markings are correct. At 1.45pm he will attend a briefing by Leicester's safety officer, noting the procedure should the ground need to be evacuated. And at 2pm he will get the team sheets, with the kit details.

"My concern there is looking for any possible clash of colours," he says. "After that, all I ask is that the players are in the tunnel six minutes before kick-off for a jewellery and stud inspection."

Jewellery inspections, it occurs to me, never happened in the days of Nat Lofthouse and Len Shackleton. But much has changed since then, not least the advent of professional referees. Until August 2001, D'Urso worked in the card services department of Coutts, the bank of the rich and famous. He still works there a couple of days a week. Is he ever tempted to lose a couple of hundred grand from the account of a footballer who has abused him? "No," he says, disappointingly.

Professionalism had to happen, he adds. He once refereed a Monday evening game at Elland Road, got home at 2.30am, and had to be up for work four hours later. It was no way to carry on. He now pockets £250 for every Premier League match he takes charge of, on top of the basic salary for the 21 Select List referees of £45,000, which rises according to experience.

No players have yet pointed out to him that they earn in a week what he earns in a year. Not even a disgruntled footballer would sink that low. Lee Hendrie called him a "fucking wanker" but that's different.

He sent Hendrie off, of course. He has also shown the red card to Dennis Wise (who hasn't?), Patrick Vieira, Gus Poyet, Dominic Matteo, Alan Smith and Alan Shearer, among others. The Shearer sending-off was mistaken, he thinks, and it earned him a post-match bollocking from Sir Bobby Robson.

The other manager he has most enraged is David O'Leary. After each match there is supposed to be a 30-minute cooling-down period before managers are allowed to talk to referees, although some of them wouldn't cool off if they spent half an hour in a chest freezer.

D'Urso admits that his heart might beat a little faster when he reaches for a red card. "But it doesn't give me a buzz. I'm depriving a player of doing what he does, and the crowd of seeing a top player play.

"Insulting language is a sending-off offence, but it's an emotional game, passions run high. And we all have different tolerance levels. I would say I'm pretty tolerant. But I have to be careful what I say."

In other words, he is touching on the referee's perennial dilemma, to be faithful to the laws of the game while exercising common sense.

"I knew a parks referee once who would send players off for swearing, full stop. If you hit a misplaced pass and said "fuck", you were off. That was his tolerance level." It would be interesting, I venture, if those puritanical standards were applied just once at the top level. Man United v Middlesbrough would end up as nobody v Gareth Southgate.

But back to Leicester v Man City. At 2.30 this afternoon, D'Urso and his assistants will start warming up. There will probably be some "butterflies", he admits. But they will disappear as soon as the whistle - his whistle - goes. By then he will have put his boots on, right foot first, and made sure that he has the old penny, given to him by his parents, for the pre-match toss.

If D'Urso is anything to go by, referees are strikingly similar to players, with their little superstitions, their briefings and debriefings.

At half-time he will talk to his assistants about the first 45 minutes. Did he miss them at any point. Did they contradict each other, perhaps on a throw-in? How might they improve on their performance in the second half? Fundamentally, it is the same conversation as those going on in the two dressing-rooms, without the flying cups and saucers. He has often heard ranting through the walls, he says, but declines to offer further details.

And no, he has never heard a hairdryer at Old Trafford.

His favourite grounds to walk out at are Anfield and St James' Park.

His favourite venues in terms of how they look after the referees, with a plush room and sandwiches laid on and all, are White Hart Lane and St Mary's. The two where he doesn't feel particularly comfortable are The Valley and Goodison Park.

"But that's because we're in an area that's fairly public, and you always think someone might have a pop. I'm not saying Charlton and Everton aren't hospitable, because they are."

After today's game he will complete a misconduct form, talk to his colleagues about their performance, then talk to the Premier League's match delegate about his own.

He will leave the ground at 5.45pm, in the hope that no fans are waiting to abuse him, and that if there are, stewards are around to ensure his safety. He will then drive home to his wife and two kids, turning the game over in his mind, but making sure not to tune in to 6-0-6.

"I tend to listen to soul in the car, easy listening stuff," he says. And Alan Green is definitely not easy listening.

"No, but he probably thinks I'm not easy watching. I do sometimes think, 'Now why did he say that? Doesn't he know that in certain situations we have no options?'"

On the journey home, D'Urso usually phones his closest refereeing friends Mike Dean and Rob Styles, to ask how they have got on. His hero, he tells me, was always George Courtenay. I love the idea that a referee should have a refereeing hero, as Joe Cole, say, grew up idolising Ian Wright.

"George was always so calm and composed, and he communicated well with the players. Those are the key ingredients, really. I think my communication skills are good, too. I could improve on some technical things, though. Some of my signals are not exactly textbook."

D'Urso still has time to read the textbooks. He is 40, which means eight more seasons at the top, God and referee's assessors willing. If there is a single change to the laws in that time, he would like referees to get help in judging whether a ball has crossed the line. "Maybe they could put something in the ball," he suggests.

In the meantime, his keenest ambition is to referee the FA Cup final.

"I know that it will be either Graham Poll or Mike Riley at the 2006 World Cup, and you have to be realistic. But the Cup final would be the pinnacle of my career. I was fortunate enough to do the 2001 Charity Shield, between Manchester United and Liverpool, and when you've tasted some of that, then just like the players, you want more."

Andy D'Urso life and times

1963 Born 30 Nov in Billericay

1979 Takes up refereeing youth football at the age of 16

1981 Referees his first game in adult football aged 18

1994 Appointed to the National List of Referees. Spends the next five years refereeing Nationwide League games and "lining" in the Premiership

1994 Takes charge of Ashford against Fulham in FA Cup. Fulham come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 after D'Urso awards a penalty on a pitch described as a "mud bath"

1999 Begins officiating in the FA Premier League

2000 Confronted by a group of enraged Manchester United players led by Roy Keane after awarding a penalty against Jaap Stam at Old Trafford.

2000 Referees Leeds v Everton at Elland Road. The game ends with the highest number of bookings in Premiership history, with 10 yellow cards and three reds

2001 Becomes a Fifa International list referee

2001 and 2002 Takes control of FA Cup quarter-finals

2002 Handles the Worthington Cup semi-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers

2002 Accused of having "no personality" by Patrick Vieira, who is subsequently banned for two matches

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