Howard Webb: Man in the middle with an MBE

He's something rather new on our sporting scene – the celebrity ref. Howard Webb's MBE in the New Year's Honours was the icing on the cake of a remarkable year.

Since he made his impact on the global consciousness as the controversial ref in the final of the World Cup, Howard has been inundated with requests for photos when he's out shopping with his children and he was mobbed on the family's summer holiday in Turkey.

He departed for the tournament in South Africa as probably Britain's most famous referee and returned as an international figure. The controversy continues and his two game-changing decisions at Old Trafford last Sunday earned him the wrath of Liverpool.

Ask the 39-year-old from Rotherham how he feels about all this and he pauses for a second.

"It's a strange word that, celebrity. What does it mean, really? If you're well known does that make you a celebrity? I don't know. People have been massively supportive and kind.

"It can create a bit of a dilemma sometimes because you get kids asking for your autograph after games. But if players see that they will think, 'Who does he think he is? He's just a ref!' and you risk your credibility with them. But ignoring these kids and just walking past doesn't feel right either.

"I've been known to run out of a ground to avoid being in the position of having to decide whether to stop to sign autographs. I don't not want to be nice to the kids but I don't want to give players the impression I think I'm big time."

Most sporting showdowns are remembered for the brilliance of one individual or team. No-one remembers the officials, right? That all changed last summer. On Sunday July 11 Spain against the Netherlands in the World Cup Final turned out to be a referee's nightmare. It thrust Webb into an unwelcome spotlight as he booked 14 players and sent off one.

There was also his much-analysed call not to show a red card to Holland's Nigel de Jong for a chest-high challenge on Spain's Xabi Alonso.

More mentally exhausted than he had ever been after a match, Webb admits even he didn't know if he had done a good job in the immediate aftermath. But the subsequent reaction to his performance was almost universally positive. The general opinion was that Webb and his two English assistants, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey, had done the best possible job in fractious and unforgiving circumstances.

And in this country we finally had something to be proud of. The England team might be rudderless, tepid, lacking in thought and deed but at least we had someone who was effective and knew what he was doing.

This former pupil of Brinsworth Comprehensive filled the void for a nation desperate for some sort of success in the South Africa shambles. He was the first Englishman to referee the final since 1974 and for us he became the face of the final.

"Coming home was quite overwhelming," he admits. "Walking back through the door and seeing the family again after six weeks away, the kids were dead excited but there were loads of journalists outside the house and straightaway I felt a bit trapped and wasn't sure what to do.

"A few journalists I know had texted me to say the mood in the English press was pretty supportive so I wasn't worried about that. But I'd never had press outside my house before. I went outside and spoke to them and, to be fair, they thanked me and went away. But it was a very surreal few hours.

"The media interest has been massive. I left these shores on June 2 and didn't really give a thought to how what I did at the tournament could impact on my family back home. My family actually handled things pretty well when they had journalists calling."

Within a couple of minutes of being in his company you are aware of the traits that mark him out as a top ref. Standing six foot two he has a strong presence. We move around the foyer at Rotherham's Hellaby Hall Hotel where we are meeting, trying to arrange somewhere quiet to do the interview. He exudes confidence and takes control of the situation while maintaining a warm manner that puts everyone else at ease.

As a youngster he entertained dreams of a football career as "a big, bruising centre back". When those aspirations fell by the wayside he started his refereeing career in the Rotherham and District Sunday League at 18.

His father Bill, who officiated at semi-pro level, helped talk him into it. Howard attended a referees' course, found he quite enjoyed it and worked his way up through the local, regional and national leagues.

He combined his hobby with a burgeoning police career which took him to the rank of sergeant with the South Yorkshire force.

In 2008, he took a five-year career break to concentrate on refereeing, a move that paid off handsomely. As one of the Premiership's top talents he was chosen to referee at the 2008 European Championships, the 2009 FA Cup final and for this year's Champions League final.

His feet are kept on the ground by his children, 12-year-old Holly, Jack, 10, and seven-year-old Lucy. They were excited about him going to the World Cup, but are otherwise unimpressed by what he does. That suits Howard who admits to checking every now and then to make sure his refereeing is not affecting them outside the family home. "Sometimes when I'm driving back from a game I'll call the kids and ask if they saw it and they will say, 'Yeah we saw the first minute and then we turned over'. They're quite blas about it all because it's all they've known really.

"I do sometimes wonder if anyone has a go at them at school about what I do, or a decision I've made, and I'll ask them if anyone's made any reference to anything. Touch wood, they've not seemed to have suffered at the moment."

Howard grew up an avid Rotherham United fan, something he has passed on to Jack. Each time he referees a Champions League game and is offered a replica shirt for Jack, Howard gets "Le Fondre 39" printed on the back in tribute to Rotherham striker Adam Le Fondre. A photo of Jack wearing an Inter Milan/Le Fondre shirt with the Rotherham star is Howard's Blackberry screensaver image.

His job means he's on the road all season. But his family are the centre of his world. His wife Kay helps manage his diary and admin and his father remains his main professional sounding board even after 20 years in the game. He was delighted Bill was in South Africa to share his World Cup joy.

"Dad will drive with me to and from games and I still get a buzz if he says to me after a match 'Eh, well done son, you bossed it today'."

Once he realised just how much his profile had risen after the World Cup, Howard was determined to use it positively.

He was given a break at the start of the Premier League season but there was no time for him to get under Kay's feet because he threw himself into work for a number of charities including Bluebell Wood Children's Hospice in Sheffield and Prison Me! No Way!!

At Christmas he visited youngsters on the teenage cancer ward at Sheffield Hospital, something he says wouldn't have happened a year ago. He has also been the figurehead for a new refereeing academy at Balby Carr Community Sports College in Doncaster. He's been invited to many local schools and businesses to talk about his World Cup experience.

As he sat, head in hands, in the dressing room after the World Cup Final, he wondered how the rest of the world had perceived what had unfurled in the previous 120 minutes. It crossed his mind it could spell the end of his career at the top flight.

It was difficult and intense but it was unquestionably the highlight of his career and he has loved being able to share his experiences with the people in his home town.

"There are around 500,000 referees in the world and only 19 people have ever refereed a World Cup Final," he says. "So to get it is like having six lottery numbers come up. It was a lot of good fortune.

"I've stayed in the community in Rotherham and I think people have enjoyed sharing in the success I had last year. So many people have come up, shook my hand and said 'Well done'. I've probably refereed many of them when I was in the local leagues.

"It still feels a bit bizarre having people ask for a photo because we are just the refs, we are just a small part of a very big business. But you do it because people have been really good to me since I've been back and that has meant an awful lot."

Was there a rock and roll moment of madness associated with his big night in a spotlight? "On the day we arrived in South Africa me and my two assistants looked around the hotel. There was an outside pool but it was winter, so it was too cold to swim outside.

"I said to the boys, 'if we get the final, we will run down the grass and jump into the pool fully-suited to celebrate. When we did get to the final, the boys said 'Remember the pool?' and I said, 'Yep, yep, we'll do it, we'll do it'. "So we did the final, we got back to the hotel and......we didn't jump in the pool. I didn't bottle it because it was too cold. I was so exhausted I just wanted to go

to bed."

YP MAG 15/1/11

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