Sport on TV: How wetting her whistle put Ellie on the telly

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The Independent Online
Another crisis has hit sport in Yorkshire. No sooner have the locals got over the trauma of allowing outsiders to wield cricket bats in the county's name, than a further hammer-blow has been dealt to the edifice of their sporting traditions. The West Yorkshire branch of the Football Association are recruiting female referees. Why and how this staggering state of affairs has come to pass was the subject of last Sunday's documentary somewhat unimaginatively titled Foul Play (Channel 5).

It seems that there is a chronic shortage of qualified referees in the area, which may have something to do with the fact that the Men in Black, protecting West Yorkshire from the scum of the football universe, could do with some protection themselves; they keep getting beaten up.

"I realised that I would have to abandon the game," one victim, Alan Pemberton, recalled, "and the goalkeeper picked up a bottle of water and threw it at me. My wife went to pick it up and they started attacking her. So I obviously went to protect her and that's when fists, boots and even a corner flag started flying around." Where most of them stopped flying was apparent from the state of Pemberton's nose, which bore a dressing worthy of M*A*S*H.

So the FA called for reinforcements, and leading the line was a regiment of women, including Ellie Friel, who had learnt a thing or two about sexual politics as a Club 18-30 rep, and Christine Lennon, who had earned her spurs defusing infantile disputes while bringing up her young family.

But before they could be unleashed on the unsuspecting Sunday Leaguers, they first had to pass through a 10-week course in refereeing techniques, which included report writing (how to spell dissent, for instance), whistle- blowing skills and the importance of an immaculately ironed kit. There was also - footballers everywhere will have been incredulous to note - an eyesight test.

The final examination was reputedly impossible to fail, but Christine did her homework in any case, mugging up on a series of symbols held up by her patient husband. She might have had some inkling of her fate when he held up a picture of a football and she was completely stumped. Christine failed the exam, and with tearful irony lamented: "I was robbed!"

Ellie sailed through, and celebrated with a session in Montezuma's nightclub on the eve of her first match. At 3am she was knocking back a clear fluid that seemed unlikely to be mineral water, and the phrase "wet your whistle" took on a whole new meaning.

The next morning found Ellie changed into her smart kit but perched on a changing-room loo seat pulling haggardly on a last fag before the kick- off. Truly, a novel solution to the violence problem: a referee who beats herself up before the match even gets under way. Soon there will be a new chant on the terraces in Yorkshire: "Who's the bastard in the oxygen tent?"

Sky's new interviewer will have recognised Ellie's refuelling routine: George Best popped up yesterday grilling the Manchester United boss in Best Meets Ferguson. Years of bad behaviour and that silvery beard have given Bestie the look of a debauched badger, but on yesterday's evidence he has recently been keeping his paws clean. He was clear of eye, lucid of manner, and sipping what looked suspiciously like a cup of tea.

This was an interesting encounter. Best may not be Jeremy Paxman, but he is better qualified than most to ask questions about the unique pressures that life in the Old Trafford hothouse can bring. Ferguson was in mellow mood as he discussed the legacy of Sir Matt Busby ("the important thing is not to be afraid of it") and that of Eric Cantona ("he taught the youngsters to practise at the end of training sessions - now I have to chase them in from the pitch").

The topic of United's youthful stars and how Ferguson has managed them could not fail to be poignant given the man asking the questions. Ferguson detailed how Ryan Giggs had been sheltered from the media so that he would not be distracted from developing his skills, and explained how the approach was now used as a template for other emerging talents.

As the Scot outlined the battery of financial and other lifestyle advisers working on behalf of his gifted juniors you could not help but wonder if the same sort of support system might not have preserved the lifespan of Best's precious talent - not to mention some of his wages.

You also wondered when the aging roue was going to point out to Ferguson that there was more to life than lifestyle management, but then perhaps one or two United players have already worked that out for themselves. Going to bed early can't seem so bad when you have a Spice Girl there to discuss your finances with over a mug of Ovaltine.

The former-great interviews current manager format might even start a trend. Coming soon to a dish near you: Rodney Marsh meets Stewart Houston, Ron "Chopper" Harris meets Ruud Gullit and Clive Allen meets - well, just about everyone.

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