Alan Biggs: Referee Howard Webb’s life spins quite a tale

Howard Webb, stuck in the middle as usual
Howard Webb, stuck in the middle as usual

Sergeant Howard Webb, policeman and football referee. And before that, one referee who really was a banker! There are few more combative fields of work.

But what strikes me most, from knowing the author a little and reading his autobiography, is that he is one of the least confrontational blokes you could wish to meet. He had to learn to assert himself and it didn’t come naturally.

Maybe that’s one secret of Webb’s great success. Forget refereeing, Rotherham’s finest is one of the most recognisable people on planet football. Perhaps that stature comes from the non-officious personality that he and others, including an influential mentor in Keith Hackett, moulded into the man who would preside over the finals of the Champions League and the World Cup in the same year.

As such, he’s an ideal role model. Take note any overbearing, attention-seeking jobsworths. Howard did it quietly but firmly up to that momentous year of 2010, flanked by his outstanding assistants Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey.

That’s why it’s so ironic he will be remembered for the record 14 yellow cards he flashed in the final between winners Spain and the Netherlands – while failing to send off Holland’s Nigel De Jong for an assault with a chest-high boot.

Howard plainly hated to be at the centre of controversy, let alone on that scale. But despite spending a career trying to avoid the headlines, he doesn’t shirk the big issues in his book. Bravely, these include the shock revelation that he has suffered from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), ordaining behaviour way beyond superstition and rituals. Many fellow sufferers will be grateful for his honesty and benefit from it.

He candidly confesses mistakes. Jose Mourinho correctly, but respectfully, predicted that one of them would get him fired as Chelsea manager. There’s a close-up on the biggest names; being the target of death threats; how uncalled for abuse from the likes of Craig Bellamy, Alan Pardew and David Moyes played a part in him quitting the middle at just 43. Why he regretted that decision; why he quit a new role with PGMOL, frustrated that the power of the Premier League seemed to prevent referees being publicly supported by their bosses; how success “comes at a price” in an unclarified passing comment on his marriage and family life.

There’s also confirmation of historic bitter divisions in the select group of Premier League referees. From personal knowledge, it’s a pity that the most criticised species in the game can’t stick together more than they do. Their habitat can be a bear-pit of bitterness and backbiting. You could argue it takes big characters and personalities to referee. Howard seemed to succeed without being either, through an often tortured and painstaking process of self-examination.

Webb positioned himself one step to the side of neutral (again avoiding conflict) to rise above the infighting; he steeled himself to make the big calls and assert himself fully in the middle – as he admits failing to do as a player, having been affectionately mocked by his bluff father Billy, a prominent local referee, as “a big girl’s blouse.” Yet this would be a fellow who’d go on to be threatened at the point of a pistol and a knife in his day job and unflinchingly control the biggest football matches on earth.

Poignantly, it all sprang from the best of upbringings. The dedication at the start – to his dad – is deeply touching: “My fiercest critic, my biggest supporter, my chauffeur and my best friend.”

* Howard Webb, The Man in the Middle. Published by Simon and Schuster on October 20th. £20