Howard Webb: The other Englishman with dreams of the final

Fifa is demanding a fresh crackdown on dangerous tackles. England's top referee tells Sam Wallace why he's the man for the job

Thursday 03 June 2010 00:00

One of Howard Webb's earliest childhood memories is witnessing first-hand an infamous clash between the public and figures of authority – an occasion when some who were supposed to be upholding the law failed to do so. Perhaps it is not so surprising that he became a referee.

It was June 1984 and Webb, brought up in Rotherham, was 12 years old. He still remembers clearly the day when he and his friends rode their bikes to a hill overlooking the stand-off between police and striking miners at the Orgreave coking plant that eventually turned into one of the most notorious episodes in the miners' strike of 1984-85.

Many of the miners were sunbathing or having lunch when they were charged by the police and, in some cases, badly beaten. Compensation was later paid out by the South Yorkshire Police to picketing miners. Five years later, Webb refereed his first ever game in the village of Orgreave.

Webb, who will be the Premier League's representative at the World Cup finals this month, had a father who worked in the mines, but he went on to become a policeman for the South Yorkshire force. "South Yorkshire Police were fine during the strike," he said. "They looked after their miners, but there were stories told about what other policemen did [in front of the miners]... burning tenners."

Having refereed the Champions League final last month and now among the 24 who will officiate in South Africa, Webb, 38, has come a long way from those days of strife in South Yorkshire. He ticks all the boxes for Fifa and Uefa's criteria for a top referee: sharp, quick-witted and – with the build of one of those Yorkshire miners who were brave enough to eyeball policemen on the picket line – he looks the part on a field of athletes.

With his team of assistants, Darren Cann – a former Crystal Palace youth team player – and Mike Mullarkey, Webb will fly to South Africa this week where he will be based with the rest of the tournament's officials outside of Pretoria. They will be assigned their games later this month and will be expected to attend debriefings with their fellow referees in which the details of every single game will be combed over.

Webb said: "The topical issues seem to be the same things: holding in the penalty areas, simulation, dissent towards match officials. But the really important one for us is serious foul play, tackles which are dangerous. Those using excessive force.

"The executive committee thought the decision to send off Franck Ribéry in the Champions League semi-final was a really good one, because it was clearly a tackle which endangered the safety of the player [Lisandro Lopez]. Those are the sort of tackles they want to cut out. In my experience Ribéry is not a malicious player, but he's gone in such a way to endanger the safety of the opponent."

Being selected to referee the Champions League final was a major endorsement for Webb, who has been ineligible for the previous five years because of the presence of English teams. As always when he takes charge of a game, be it at the Reebok Stadium or in the Bernabeu, he was just glad that the match was not remembered for any of his decisions.

At Euro 2008 he was probably best remembered for giving Austria a last-minute penalty against Poland, which earned him the outrage of the Polish. "I think the penalty was the right decision, it was the timing of it that caused the controversy," he said. "It was late in the game and Poland were close to winning. I understand the disappointment that it created. Reasonable people in Poland understand that and those who reacted extremely, well that wasn't a Polish thing, it was a football thing.

"Two days later I asked if I could go to the fanzone in Zurich to watch a match on one of the big screens. Uefa said it was OK but we recommend that I wear some sort of disguise. With my bald head, my disguise was simply a hat. Later in the tournament I had a game in Salzburg and was met by the head of police off the plane. He said: 'Mr Vebb, you will not be killed in Salzburg.'"

There were 30 refereeing teams selected by Fifa and two from Egypt and Algeria have already been sent home for failing fitness tests. Six will act as back-ups and 24 will take charge of the games. While the English trio are yet to be told officially that they will referee, they go to South Africa as one of Europe's most highly regarded teams.

Webb, Cann and Mullarkey have formed a close bond and Cann is now recognised as one of the top linesmen in Europe. Previously he worked at a bank near his home village of Poringland in Norfolk and refereed his first game 19 years ago at the age of 22 before switching to being an assistant the higher up the ladder he went. During a game the three talk all the time over their headsets, reminding Webb about everything from who committed a foul to which player is in an offside position.

"We have a sports psychologist who helps us cope with the ups and downs of the game," Webb said. "It comes down to luck as well. You can make a mistake and it doesn't affect the result of the game. On another day, exactly the same type of mistake can cost a team three points. Every game is important, we understand the stakes and how important it is to everyone involved. But also, we try to put it into some perspective as well."

He will admit that he can lie awake in bed turning a bad decision over and over in his head. The ease with which he recalls the details of those he has got wrong this season – the penalty against Spurs when Heurelho Gomes had pushed the ball away from Manchester United's Michael Carrick – suggests that he has given them a lot of thought. He laughs when he recalls how the German Wolfgang Stark once told him that players in the Bundesliga address him as "Herr Stark".

"As I have got older I have worked at looking after myself," Webb said. "I didn't want to put on weight. I didn't want to look like an old fart. I want to look as if I still belong on a field of athletes. I want to be able to show that I take this job seriously and that I train hard. I might not get every decision right but I want to be able to show that at least I am doing everything I can to be as accurate as I can."

The official line: What Fifa is asking referees to clamp down on in South Africa

Holding in the penalty area

Obstructing and holding players at corners and free-kicks will be scrutinised. Argentines and Italians perfected the "art" long ago, but are by no means alone in cheating this way – witness San Marino. Fifa also called for harsher penalising of these offences in 1994.


Failing to respect the referee is also likely to be punished more stringently than at previous World Cups. England's Wayne Rooney will need to keep his volatile temper in check.


Michael Owen twice earned penalties against Argentina after going down easily, while Rivaldo's histronics – after being hit by a ball – against Turkey in 2002 came weeks after Fifa had also made stamping out simulation part of their pre-tournament directives for referees.

Serious foul play

Defined as using excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball. Studs-high tackles, Rooney's stamp on Ricardo Carvalho four years ago and the German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher's unpunished felling of the French defender Patrick Battiston, who both lost teeth and consciousness, in 1982, are prime examples.

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