When the Premier League referee Mark Halsey learnt in December 2008 that his wife Michelle had been diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, he refereed Hartlepool against Stoke City in the FA Cup third round two days later, although he will admit that he spent most of the match thinking about Michelle.
The abuse that usually washes off him hurt a little more that day. "I gave a decision against Hartlepool and a few of their fans had a right go at me. I looked at them and thought, 'If only you knew what I'm going through'," Halsey says. Within eight months he would be refereeing a game a day after learning that he had throat cancer.
Halsey, 48, has taken cancer on and won. He is in remission and on Wednesday he took charge of his first game back: the Totesport.com Cup semi-final between the reserve teams of Leicester City and Scunthorpe at Hinckley United. This week is Blackpool reserves against Rochdale reserves at Fleetwood – a very long way from the Premier League but Halsey feels like a new man and he is loving every minute.
We meet the day after the game at Hinckley at Christie hospital in south Manchester, the largest cancer hospital in Europe, which treats 14,000 patients every year. It is here that Halsey and Michelle have had their treatment and while Michelle's continues, her husband is proof that the fight can be won.
His return to refereeing came when he passed the stringent fitness tests required of all Premier League officials at the second time of asking. The test requires referees to complete six consecutive 40m sprints, each in less than 6.2 seconds and then 20 runs of 100m, each within 30 seconds with only 35 seconds of rest between each.
"My lowest point was when I took my first fitness test," he said. "I didn't get anywhere near it. I just couldn't do it. I collapsed. I remember sitting with my head in my hands. I couldn't even phone my wife to tell her I had failed. I just sat on the steps and thought, 'I can't see me ever doing this.' Michelle had a bit of a setback with her leukaemia so we went out to Lanzarote. I got a training programme to do while I was out there and I stuck to it rigorously. I took the test a second time. Mark Clattenburg, who was training on the pitch next to the track, came over and cheered me on.
"When I finished I fell to the floor and was just so emotional. Steve Bennett came over and picked me up. I think I hugged him for about five minutes and I cried non-stop." Halsey was diagnosed the day before his first game of the season, Arsenal's 6-1 win over Everton. He had suffered from a sore throat for weeks. The lymphoma tumour in his right tonsil had grown so large that by the time he was in charge of the game at Goodison Park it was obstructing his throat to the extent that if it had been left any longer he would have been unable to breathe or eat.
"On the Saturday, I arrived at the hotel four hours before kick-off and the assistants and fourth official were already waiting for me," Halsey said. "I could see they were looking at me concerned because I looked so ill. That was when I had to tell them. It was Mike Jones, the fourth official, Trevor Massey and Andy Garratt and I just said to them, 'Look, I need your help today because I've got cancer.'"
In the care of Professor Tim Illidge, a lymphoma specialist and lifelong Everton fan, Halsey underwent two biopsies to remove cancerous cells. His cancer was so aggressive that the tumour could double in size within 24 hours. After that, Halsey had a course of intravenous chemotherapy, which was followed by the second biopsy. Then there were six courses of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiotherapy.
Having reached 48, the age at which referees have to retire, Halsey hopes to be given the same extension granted to the likes of Bennett, Peter Walton and Alan Wiley. He is raising money for the Christie (www.justgiving.com/mark-halsey), he still hopes to referee an FA Cup final and most of all does not want to be treated any differently by players and fans."When I cross that white line, I am not Mark Halsey the cancer patient. I am Mark Halsey the referee. I wouldn't expect it any other way. I don't want their sympathy. But by me walking on that pitch I hope that I can give hope to all those people who are suffering from cancer. My illness has put the game and life into a different perspective. Of course I still care about football. I love the game. For me it is all about going out, and hoping 22 players can enjoy a game of football. And the fans, who pay a lot of money, should enjoy it. If I can stay out of the game and not be noticed, then I'm happy."
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