Friday, 6 February 2015


 In 2006 a retired Premiership referee wrote an autobiography...

Jeff Winter is routinely portrayed in sections of the media as arrogant and vain: a man who'd walk a million miles for one of his own smiles. The passage from his autobiography, Who's The B*****d  In The Black covering his last game at Anfield certainly boosts the notion of preening self-regard. 'Was the applause for me?' Winter asks himself, before replying, 'They are such knowledgeable football people, that it would not surprise me'. These sentences have been filleted out and used by numerous newspapers and websites - often under the headline 'The ego has landed' - to demonstrate the type of strutting bigheads that now hold the cards in Premier League matches.

If you have been paying attention this will come as little surprise. Pillorying match officials is one of the great hobbies of the modern game, nowhere more so than on TV and radio where every vaguely questionable decision is a (groan) 'talking point'. English clubs can be bought by international criminals, stripped, shafted and despoiled for fiscal gain without so much as a murmur from the gym-built dummies in the shiny shirts sitting spread-legged in the studio smugly imagining themselves to be men, but let the ref send off a player in the first half of some Super Sunday encounter and we are told the evil blackguard has 'ruined the game'. Let's be clear here - incorrect yellow cards are not what is ruining English football.

Anyroad, Jeff Winter. Maybe the gadgie from Middlesbrough really can't pass a mirror without blowing a kiss, but personally I find it hard to hate anybody who has driven Steve Bruce (these days looking like ever more like the world's toughest dinner lady) to such splenetic fury. Besides, I met Jeff Winter on a BBC Tees radio show some years ago and he was highly entertaining. He told a funny story – off air, naturally – about Steve Staunton ('Where I come from if you talk to someone like that you're likely to wake up on your back') and was belligerently rude about Darren Anderton: 'I said to him, 'Try to smile, even if it’s only wind.'
'I’m going to put it all in a book one day,' he said as we were leaving. And I thought to myself 'Now, that will be a book worth reading.' And now here is the book. And was I right? Well, hmm, yes, maybe, but only if you’ve got time on your hands.

The problem with all of what Mike Ticher once dubbed reflit is that however close match officials may get to the action they remain peripheral figures. They are not Prince Hamlet, nor were meant to be. The more they try and thrust themselves centre stage, the more desperate they seem. When reading books like that by David Elleray you feel you have entered an alternative world, one in which Coleridge’s wedding guest has held up a hand and told the Ancient Mariner 'I’d love to hear your shipwreck story old chap, but before I do, let me tell you of some amusing incidents that have occurred during my twenty-five years service as a clerk at Shadrack & Dombey.'

Even Jeff Winter, who spent his teenage years causing trouble on the terraces with the Central Boro Crew (though he insists he was a “boot boy” not a hooligan and – like an East End villain of cliche - only hurt his own kind) can’t avoid sounding vaguely Pooter-ish as he tells his tales of top banter with fellow rebels Dennis Wise and Robbie Savage, or the evening spent letting his hair down in the hot tub with Andy D’Urso and Mike Riley.

The anecdotes that made me laugh when Winter told them (his Teesside accent perfectly pitched for incredulity and scorn) seem oddly flat on the page, the punch lines arriving so slowly they’d struggle to take Rio Ferdinand by surprise.

Thankfully the serious sections of the book are altogether better and Winter certainly has some interesting things to say, particularly about the way power is sliding inexorably into the hands of the major clubs when it comes to issues of discipline. His collision with Sir Alex Ferguson when acting as 4th Official is particularly well handled and confirms that when in comes to the Premiership the Football Association is like a man holding onto the tail of a raging bull and cheerily assuring bystanders that he is riding it. Winter had alleged that the Manchester United manager called the linesman a “fucking cheating bastard” for not flagging for a foul when Andy O’Brien apparently brought down Ryan Giggs. The incident was captured on camera. Yet for the disciplinary hearing the FA was could not obtain a copy of the footage, Sky allegedly being unable to supply an unedited tape of the game.

Trapped between the amorality of those who finance football and the spinelessness of those who supposedly control it there is little wonder that Winter and his colleagues feel frustrated. They may not be lovable, they may be strutting autocrats bubbling over with self-importance , but they are by no means the biggest bastards in the game, not by a long chalk.







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