Who's the philosopher in the black?

'By supporting the ref you get total detachment and involvement. You care about the game but not the winner'
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I was sitting at a train table the other day when a lad wearing a Manchester United shirt got in and sat down. He saw us all staring at it and grinned amiably.

I was sitting at a train table the other day when a lad wearing a Manchester United shirt got in and sat down. He saw us all staring at it and grinned amiably.

"Yes," he said, "I know what you're all thinking. I know I've never been to Manchester and I know their kit is a rip-off and I know it's uncool to be a Man U fan, but I still love them, OK ? After all, we have all got teams we are loyal to, haven't we ? I mean, haven't you all? Go on, own up."

One after the other we agreed that we were loyal to teams in our own way, even if we hadn't seen them play for years. There was a Chelsea fan present, and I admitted my continuing support of Wrexham, and a man said he used to cheer for Gillingham, but there was one man who said nothing at all.

"What about you?" said the Manchester United fan to the silent man. "Are you an unbeliever? Don't you support anyone?"

"Yes, I do," he said quietly, "but you wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try us," we said.

"Barry Mortmain," he said.

There was a silence. Then the Chelsea fan stirred.

"Hold on," he said. "He's a referee, isn't he? Think I saw him do an international once."

"Yes," said the man.

There was another silence.

"Some time ago," said the man," I was taken to see a Premier League football match by a friend. I didn't support either of the sides, and, although it wasn't a bad game, I thought the person who came out of it with most credit was the referee. His name was Barry Mortmain. I thought he was the only civilised element on the field of play. I loved what he stood for."

The man almost seemed to blush. "The next time I saw a football match advertised near me in London," he continued, " I happened to notice that the referee was going to be Barry Mortmain, so I thought I'd go along and support him. And I'm glad I did. He played a blinder."

"Just a moment," said Man United. "Are you telling us you went along to a match to cheer for the ref?"

"Yes. I just wanted Barry to have a good game. Which he usually does."

"I don't believe what I'm hearing," said Man United. "What on earth do you get out of supporting the ref?"

"Total involvement, for a start," said the man. "The ref is the only guy on the field who is involved in every move. He's always in the thick of it. Also, by supporting the ref you get total detachment as well as total involvement. You care passionately about the game but you don't give a toss who wins. And until you follow the progress of a ref in a first-class game, you don't understand real positioning and footwork. The players have to be in the right place now and again. The ref has to be there all the time. He's the fittest man on the field, too. Supporting the ref is the nearest you can get to a real element of philosophy in football."

We all thought about this for a moment, and then Man United delivered his verdict.

"I think you're off your rocker," he said. "I honestly think you've got a screw loose. Don't the rest of you?"

For some reason, Man United looked at me first.

"No, I don't," I said. "I think it's odd to go round supporting the ref, but I think it's rather noble in a way. He's the only football fan I've ever come across who is for someone and not against anyone. You know, like Spurs fans hate Arsenal, and Liverpool hate Everton, but this man just likes the art of refereeing. He has no enemies, because everyone is against the ref and therefore nobody is. This man is above it all. He is a saint."

"There's always the linesman," said the Chelsea fan. "A linesman can always wave his flag and overrule the ref."

To our surprise the man who liked Barry Mortmain suddenly crashed his fist down on the table.

"Bastards!" he said. "I hate sodding linesmen! The other day I saw a perfectly good penalty decision by Barry Mortmain chucked out just because a linesman had seen an elbow being previously used. I wouldn't give you tuppence for sodding effing linesmen... I hate the lot of the bastards..."

We all breathed a sigh of relief. The man was just another normal football fan after all.