Whistling to final goal four years ahead of his time

FROM the muddy parks of Brinsworth to the bright lights of Soccer City. Howard Webb is about to complete an epic footballing journey.

The world and its wife will look on tomorrow night when Webb takes

charge of the World Cup final.

When he picked up his whistle 20 years ago, it was just one man a dog and the teams were the Rose and Crown and the White Hart.

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The first Englishman to land a World Cup final since Jack Taylor in 1974, Webb has climbed his Mount Everest and is about to plant his flag at the peak. If only England's footballers were able to say the same.

Yet Webb never dared imagine that he would get so far so quickly. During an interview at his Rotherham home two years ago, he laughed when I mentioned the possibility.

"You have to set high goals and my ultimate goal is to referee in the World Cup final," he said. "But that won't happen in South Africa because I am up against far more experienced referees. My goal is to get the final in Brazil in 2014. By that time, I will be 42."

It may have been modesty on his part but the truth is Webb – unusually it should be be stressed – called it wrong.

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Tomorrow night, he will be there on merit. Unofficially, the best referee in the world.

Amid the buzz of the vuvuzelas and the screams of nearly 85,000 fans, his father Bill will look down from the stands.

It was Webb senior who inspired his son to take up refereeing and, even at 67, he still likes to attend his son's every game.

Bill flew back to Yorkshire last week assuming his boy would no longer be needed after missing out on a quarter-final. It goes without saying that he has flown back for the weekend.

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A former coal miner, Bill served as an amateur referee for over 35 years and is president of Rotherham referee's association.

"The whole thing is jaw-dropping," he said. "I just can't imagine my son reffing the World Cup final. I just hope he doesn't do anything controversial, no red cards, and (afterwards) they're not talking about the referee, they're talking about the players and the game."

Webb was subjected to death threats over the internet and insults from the Polish Prime Minister when he awarded a stoppage-time penalty to Austria at Euro 2008. The subsequent goal sent Poland crashing out of the competition.

"He can be very, very down for a couple of days if he thinks he's made a wrong decision," admitted his mother Sylvia. "He'll come home after a game – and I always record them – and replay it and look at different issues. Let's hope on Sunday everything goes right."

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Webb stuck by his decision to penalise the Poles for shirt-pulling at a free-kick and, significantly, received support from UEFA's top brass.

Buoyed by the vote of confidence, he reaffirmed his status among refereeing's elite and took charge of the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan two months ago.

Away from football, Webb is married with three children, Jack, Holly, and Lucy. His wife, Kay, says he is "completely different" at home. "I don't know how he does it. He can't take charge of his own children so I don't know how he manages it on a football pitch," she said with a smile.

Webb turned to refereeing after failing to make the grade with his beloved Rotherham United. A blossoming career in the police force is also on hold but the door remains opens.

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As a PC, he patrolled the players' tunnel at Bramall Lane, served as a desk sergeant at Sheffield's West Bar, and was team sergeant of the safer neighbourhood team in Attercliffe. He is currently midway through a five-year sabbatical.

"Howard has a good reputation as a sergeant and you can spot some 'policing' traits in the games that he handles," commented South Yorkshire Police's Assistant Chief Constable Andy Holt.

"Intervening in heated situations and separating people and calming them down is not too dissimilar to policing on a Friday or Saturday night. I think he's considered firm but fair. It's a great achievement and we are delighted for him."

On graduating to the national list 10 years ago, Webb was helped on the road to South Africa by Sheffield's Keith Hackett, one of the game's most respected former referees and who, until recently, was head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board.

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"We have been close for a number of a years and I told his dad four years ago that he was going to be the world's No 1," said Hackett. "Even before this tournament started, I had a feeling that he would get the final. He has all the qualities and has worked hard to improve many aspects of his game."

Webb puts great emphasis on team work, even referring to himself and assistants Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey as 'Team England.'

Hackett thinks his success will serve as inspiration to budding young referees at a time when numbers are dwindling.

"Howard eats, sleeps and breathes football, and his rise has been pretty rapid," he said. "He will be regarded as an icon in years to come and hopefully that will inspire others to take up the role too."

Webb's route to the final


1971: Born Howard Melton Webb, July 14, Rotherham.

1989: First refereeing course.

1996: Begins refereeing in Northern Counties East.

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2000: Included on the National List of Football League Referees at 29.

2003: Selected as Premier League referee.

2005: Aug 7 – Takes Community Shield game as Chelsea beat Arsenal 2-1.

Nov 15 – first international, Northern Ireland and Portugal draw 1-1.

2006: May 14 – First final, the FA Trophy, Grays beat Woking 2-0.

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June – Two group matches and a semi-final at European Under-21 Championships plus fourth official for the final – Holland beat Ukraine 3-0.

Sep 26 – First Champions League match, Lyon's 3-0 win at Steaua Bucharest.

2007: Feb 25 - Sends off Chelsea's John Obi Mikel and Arsenal's Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor in Carling Cup final.

June and July – Takes charge of two games during the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

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2008: June – Two UEFA European Championship games – sent home following series of controversial decisions.

2009: Confederations Cup controversy as he appears to signal corner when Egypt's Ahmed Al Muhamadi handles on line. But Webb then sends off Al Muhamadi and gives a penalty which Brazil score to win 4-3.

2010: May 22 – Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.

June: Two World Cup group games and second-round game between Brazil and Chile. Not selected for quarter-finals or semi-finals, but gets the big prize.