It is two hours before kick-off at Villa Park on Wednesday and Stephen Lodge, drinking a cup of tea at the bar in the directors' lounge, is pondering the referee's lot. Soon he will be taking charge of that night's crucial relegation battle between Aston Villa and Manchester City.
It is not a live game but, in the Premiership, there is no escape from the cameras. Later that night, and the following morning, television will replay, over and over again, a clip that appears to show Ugo Ehiogu using his hand to score Villa's goal.
The newspapers pick up on it, the managers mention it and, when he looks at the match video, Lodge may wonder.
"Most jobs get easier the longer you do them, as you get more experienced," Lodge said. "I have been a local government officer for more than 20 years and it gets easier. This is getting harder.
"The pressure has increased, the pace of the game is greater. There is so much money involved, so much at stake, I sometimes wonder if it is an entertainment any more, or a business."
Doug Ellis, the chairman of Villa, would have no doubts. He has calculated that relegation will cost his club £2m. Neither would Wednesday night's players, some of whom are on £5,000 a week.
Not so the referee and his team, linesmen Denis Madgwick and Alan Streets, and the fourth official Steve Castle. Lodge will be paid £300, the two linesmen £125 and the fourth official, who acts as reserve linesman and touchline administrator, just £20. Endsleigh League rates are substantially lower, with the referee paid £165. The officials also get expenses - at 34p a mile in the Premier - and two guest tickets.
Lodge, 42, has been on the Football League list since 1987 and the Fifa international list since 1992 and is one of the 22 lite referees on the Premiership panel. He is reserve official at the FA Cup final and has travelled all over Europe with Uefa and Fifa including a trip to Georgia this season.
All the officials have arrived well before the minimum two hours before kick-off. Earlier this year Lodge, who lives in Barnsley, took three hours to cover the 35 miles to Maine Road because of snow on the Pennines. He arrived an hour before kick-off, before most spectators but late for a referee and had to report himself.
"The travelling is the worst part of the job, not the pressure or the criticism, just getting to the game and back," Lodge said. "I often go by train for the longer ones but I did drive to Southampton."
They do between 25 and 40 games a season, from Premiership to Tranmere Reserves. "You need an understanding boss and wife," says Streets. "I'm lucky in that my wife and son come with me."
The first task on arrival at Villa Park was to report to club officials and then inspect the pitch, which Lodge later marks in his official report as "excellent".
It is now 90 minutes before kick-off and, having left his two guests in the directors' lounge, it is time to move into the dressing-room which is spacious with en suite bathroom. Villa's is one of the biggest.
Doug Ellis comes in to wish the officials an enjoyable game. After he leaves, our photographer jokes that he was expecting to see some well- stuffed envelopes passing hands. It is taken in good part and Madgwick says he "cannot imagine" anyone in his profession taking a bribe, or imagine anyone in England wanting to bribe them. Someone suggests not all European teams would see things the same way. With impeccable timing, however, a Villa steward comes in bearing a gift for each official: a boiled sweet as well as another cup of tea.
Kick-off is now just an hour away and Allan Evans, Villa's assistant manager, and Brian Horton, City's manager, come in with their team-sheets. They are there for less than three minutes; the conversation is brief and to the point.
Lodge asks them to check shinguards (compulsory in these Aids-conscious days), and jewellery (which must be removed or taped over) in the dressing- rooms to save him having to pull someone up on the pitch.
Referees used to inspect players in their dressing-rooms for studs and such like but that was stopped five years ago. "It was a farce," Madgwick says. "Players would be on the toilet and they would hold one foot out then get up and turn round to show you the other with their backside in your face. Only in one dressing-room, Nottingham Forest [under Brian Clough], would they sit quietly and hold their feet up in turn. And then they could change the boots before going out anyway." In Uefa ties, studs are inspected in the tunnel.
"It's your game, enjoy it," is Lodge's parting shot to Horton and Evans.
Next in is the local police superintendent. An extraordinarily thorough briefing is preceded by a request - "Villa have to lose then they will play Birmingham in the Endsleigh next year". Clearly a Blues fan, as it is not a fixture West Midlands police will welcome.
The briefing, accompanied by a printed sheet, goes into evacuation procedures; what to do if someone is sent off (a major issue since the Cantona incident); protection for the referee; where the away fans are; what the police will do if they think a player is inciting the crowd. "We are not expecting trouble," adds the officer. "But there may be a demonstration against Doug Ellis if Villa lose."
The briefing brings home how vulnerable referees can be. "I never think about it," Lodge says. It did come up at one of the Premiership's refereeing seminars which are held during the blank fixture weekends. "One of the refs asked 'if a bloke was to hit me, do I hit him back,'" Lodge said. "He was told to just defend himself."
Finally, it is Lodge's turn for a team talk. The emphasis is on teamwork. From the outset he has made it clear that he regards refereeing as a four- man job.
The linesmen are told what he expects of them at set-pieces and in open play: "Throw-ins are yours, unless me and 30,000 people are all sure you are wrong... If you think you see a penalty, before you flag be 103 per cent certain and bear my position in mind... Offsides are yours. If I've acknowledged it but not given it, just carry on and keep up with the play... You're both experienced and we've worked together before, so I don't really need to tell you what to do... On dissent, if you decide it has gone far enough call me over and I'll back you 100 per cent. I'm not one of these refs who will try and water it down."
There is no obvious tension in the air. There is no mention of individual players and reputations. The officials are aware of the importance of the match - "Let's be prepared for a hard game," Lodge says - but not fazed by it.
Six minutes before kick-off the four go out into the corridor to stand at the head of the two teams. They go down two flights of steps and out through the portable tunnel to be greeted by the roar of the crowd.
Lodge's normal pulse rate is 66. He was surprised to discover through tests that it will now be around 90 and will reach 160 during the game. Lodge says the figures show the stresses involved. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "I don't feel under that much stress."
The game starts quietly but, after nine minutes, a cross is flicked on and finds its way past John Burridge, the City keeper. Villa celebrate, Burridge and several City players gesture to Lodge and the linesman, Streets, to indicate a handball.
From my position behind the line, with the photographers, the goal looked to have gone past Burridge in an odd fashion, but no one has seen a hand. The press box view, from high in the main stand, is that Ehiogu has headed it in. The City fans, massed behind the goal, appear not to have seen anything untoward. Burridge, however, continues to gesture at Streets.
The half is scrappy. Lodge lets it flow wherever possible, playing lots of advantage and getting quickly into position. Half-time comes with no further goals and no bookings. As they leave the pitch, Burridge waits for Lodge and protests again. Horton, though more restrained, also has a word before eventually pulling Burridge away. Lodge says something about angles. "I'm not talking about angles, I'm talking about hands," is Horton's response.
In the dressing-room, the atmosphere is much like a tea break at any workplace, except perhaps there is a greater desire to return to work. The goal is discussed and Streets sums up the mood: "If it was a mistake, it was an honest mistake." The general feeling is that the goal was valid and Burridge may be looking for an excuse and Horton for more favourable treatment in the second half.
The conversation is conducted to the sound of the walls being blistered in City's adjacent dressing-room. It is clear Horton's main ire is for his team.
But, as I rejoin the photographers, things do not look good. An agency man has a shot of Ehiogu's fist appearing to make contact with the ball. No one else seems to have it and he's saying "no more goals, then I can clean up."
The press, aided by half-time replays on the television screens that hang above the box [a very rare facility] now thinks an error has been made. Thursday's "Hand of Og" headlines are being planned.
Meanwhile Horton's blast has had an effect. The tempo has been raised and tempers with it. Ian Taylor is booked for a late tackle as City begin to dominate.
Just after the hour they are rewarded as Niall Quinn brushes aside Shaun Teale and crosses for Uwe Rsler to score. The ball only just trickles over the line and Lodge glances right, at linesman Streets, before signalling a goal and heading for the centre-circle. Steve Staunton, the Villa defender, follows him all the way past the half-way line, calls the decision "scandalous", and is booked for dissent.
Ehiogu is next in the book, for a tackle from behind, and Teale becomes the fourth in 14 minutes after he throws the ball away just as Lodge is about to take it from him. All fair enough and now the game settles with just one more caution, for Burridge for time-wasting.
At full-time both sides seem reasonably happy with the 1-1 draw and applaud their supporters as the officials quietly leave the field. In the dressing- room a plate of meat pies and sandwiches is provided along with four cans of lager and four Scotches. Lodge and his team are more interested, on such a warm night, in getting hold of some non-alcoholic refreshment. Eventually a bottle of squash and water is provided.
Brendon Batson enters. He is the Premier League's match observer and one of his main tasks is to mark the referee. Apart from Batson and Steve Coppell, all 22 observers are former referees.
Batson compliments Streets on his position for the goal that just crossed the line - Batson adds that he, sitting opposite the linesman, saw the ball clearly cross the line. The former West Bromwich defender also praises Lodge for warning Burridge before booking him, and adds that he did not see Ehiogu handle the ball.
Lodge, who tends to show a card and note a number when cautioning players, is filled in on the names and timings by Castle. Horton, more relaxed than at half-time, comes in to tell Lodge the press have informed him that the video shows handball. But, he adds gracefully, "you can't give what you can't see."
"If the video shows it, you have to go with the video," Lodge replies.
He has asked Villa for a copy of the match tape. It is a regular practice; he will use it to check his positioning and review his decisions.
By yesterday morning, with the tape still to arrive, he admitted he had been surprised by the amount of press reaction. "You can't lie awake worrying about it. You have a second to make a decision and you do it as honestly as you can."
Crystal Palace and West Ham, who he referees today, may feel the decision did them no favours. But Villa could point to a "goal" they thought crossed the line against Palace last month. These things do even out. "Using video would slow the game down so much I cannot see it coming in," Lodge said.
While Lodge is at Selhurst Park today, Streets is at Merthyr in the Conference and Madgwick at Nuneaton in the Beazer Homes.
A comedown? "No," Madgwick says. "I enjoy it just as much. In some ways it is harder as the players are not so good so it is more difficult to predict the pattern of play. And you can hear the comments in a crowd of 1,000."
Streets leaves the professional game on Monday. He reached the retirement age for linesmen (44) last year and, having been invited to do one extra year does not expect another. His final game is Blackburn v Newcastle, quite a send-off. But he won't hang up his flag and whistle. Next year he will be on the park pitches in Sheffield.
"I love doing it," he said. "I have been fortunate to get this far and on nights like this you appreciate that. There are guys who are our fourth officials, who know they won't make it, who would give anything for just a half out there."
"I'll walk to my first game next year," pipes up Castle, who has been accepted on to the Endsleigh League list next season. "That's how much I am looking forward to it."
Madgwick adds: "When you start you never dream you will get to this level, there are so many stages. But, once you start moving up, you always have an eye on the next stage."
Lodge began at 18, 24 years ago. It was hard enough on the parks then. "I wonder if I could do it now," he says. "I take my son for a walk across the park and I see the aggro they have to put up with. When I began I was 18 and I was trying to get the respect of men in their 30s. It was not easy."
It is now 10.30, nearly an hour after the final whistle. The quartet, showered and changed, move back to the lounge to rejoin their guests before setting off for home. While the players will be able to have a lie-in the morning after the game, Lodge and his colleagues will be back in their "proper" jobs.
While the supporters will reserve their right to regard all referees as being blind and born out of wedlock, it is hard to argue that players, managers, or even fans are more dedicated than the men in green, purple or black.Reuse content