Saturday, 12 September 2015


Next Thursday, 7pm, the Lit & Phil I'll be asking Michael Walker polite questions about his excellent book on North-East football, Up There. It's free (but it's not cheap) and you can book tickets here,-football,-boom-and-bust/

Jarrow Roofing in the FA Cup for me today.

For no particular reason other than that, in the chaos in my house as daughter packs to leave for university (the greatest skill needed for parenting is the ability to find things you didn't lose, when you have no idea where they are, or indeed what the fuck they look like), I feel the need for discipline and order - here's a thing about Northern League referees.

World Cup referee, Pat Partridge who died last year was born in Billingham. Like his Teesside near-contemporary, Brian Clough, he had a nasal twang, a lot of opinions (he described Gordon Banks as ‘a player who believes his own publicity’ and Bobby Charlton as ‘the biggest moaner in the game’), and a clear sense of his place in the scheme of things. ‘Every referee is an egotist’ he noted in his autobiography, ‘Oh, Ref!’

Many years ago I did some filming with Pat in Cockfield, talking about the village football team that reached the Amateur Cup Final in 1928. After we’d finished, he invited us back for tea. ‘Just follow my car,’ he said, which was easy enough because he drove a Jag with the number plate REF1. Pat lived in a farm perched on the edge of the Durham moors. The farm was called ‘Law One’.  While his wife brought us hot drinks and a wide assortment of biscuits, we chatted and admired the photos of Pat officiating around the world that decorated the walls of the living room.

Conscious that in his autobiography Pat had also made approving remarks about the Argentinean military junta (‘The regime is owed an apology by the world’s press”), I asked him what it had been like officiating at the 1978 World Cup. ‘Well now,’ he said, ‘of course the game everybody remembers is Poland versus Peru.’ He pointed at a photo on the wall. It showed him brandishing a yellow card at Ramon Quiroga ‘And that, as you know, was the first time in a World Cup match that a goalkeeper has been booked inside the opposition half.’

Pat was a man with a forthright conviction that nipped the bud of argument. I imagine this attribute served him well when officiating at non-League matches in the North East. In non-League football you can’t afford to equivocate. The slightest hesitation is is the cue for a white-haired old lady stood by the corner flag to cry, in a voice like Edith Piaf gargling gravel, “If you’re not sure ref, ask your bloody guide dog”.


In those days anyone who spent time at grass roots football matches quickly came to see the pivotal role the match officials played in the game– not for the participants, but for the crowd. Let a home striker collect the ball from his keeper and run with it at pace, slaloming through defenders and finishing with a crashing shot into the top corner from thirty yards and would receive only the most cursory display of emotion from the spectators. The minute a linesman fails to signal an opposition player offside, however, and the entire crowd turned purple with outrage, bellowing, “Away lino, fetch your flag down from up your arse”.

The match officials may have seen themselves as a facilitators, people who helped create an environment in which football could flourish, but what happened the moment they made a decision? A fifty-year old bloke standing on the touchline, an oily nicotine-tinged quiff curled upon his head like an Ottoman’s turban, bellowed, “How referee, did one of your glass eyes just mist up?”

As a result of this constant barrage of insults, match officials tended to take on the air of frontier marshals in a hostile saloon. As a refereeing friend of mine who’d once mistakenly sent off a spectator in a Northern Alliance game (‘He was stood by the dugout wearing a tracksuit. I thought he was a sub’) remarked a decade or so ago, ‘It’s like dogs: if you show any sign of fear, you’re dinner’. This seemed a little unfair on dogs, but his point was well made.

At the Doctor Pit Welfare Ground in Bedlington many years back I saw a salutary example of the sort of attitude that prevailed. As a Terriers’ player ran onto a long through ball the linesman raised his flag. Incensed, a home supporter who was a few yards away from him, leaning on the perimeter fence, yelled, “Away, man! That was never offside”.

The linesman, an individual so large his parents must have needed planning permission for him, turned round, fixed the complainant with a gunslinger glare and barked, “You’re talking rubbish, sunshine”.  After that, criticism of the linesman’s decisions was confined to mild nose wrinkling and the occasional short burst of eye-rolling, though only when his back was fully turned.


Never apologise, never explain was the credo back then. Lately that seems to have changed. The Northern League has introduced a strict no swearing rule for players and spectators. The abuse is no longer anywhere near as salty as it once was As a consequence perhaps the liners in particular seem to have softened. A couple of weeks ago, a linesman responded to a similar cry to the one I’d heard at Bedlington not with an admonition, but with a long and patient explanation of the reasoning behind his decision. He delivered it without ever taking his eyes off the pitch, like a parent driving a car while telling a story to a toddler and trying to avoid smashing head on into the lorry in front. After he’d finished a supporter of the rival team who was wearing a wool cap with the words ‘Lawn Ranger’ embroidered on it, yelled, ‘You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, liner,’ only to demand clarification himself thirty seconds later.

It went on like that for most of the match. It was edifying, in a way. Though I confess that by the third time I’d heard the words ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ I found myself pining for the old days of gunlaw; muttering after the manner of Tony Soprano, ‘Whatever happened to Jack Taylor? What ever happened to the strong silent type?’


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