Final makes aggro worthwhile for Webb

The England team may have left South Africa early but the country will still be represented at the 2010 World Cup Final.

When Howard Webb leads the Spanish and Dutch teams onto pitch of the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg he will become the first Englishman since 1974 to take charge of the biggest game in football. Along with his assistant referees and countrymen, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey, the trio are the only full-time professionals to officiate at this tournament and they have been accorded the greatest accolade that their profession can bestow.

For Webb it is history in the making, as he also becomes the first man to referee the finals of both the Champions League and World Cup in the same year.

It has been a long journey for Webb, the former South Yorkshire policeman who grew up near the Orgreave Colliery during the miner’s strike of the 1980s.

“There were some really strong battles between the police and the striking miners,” recalls Webb of the period. “My father was a miner and I ended up becoming a policeman, and my first game as a referee was played three or four years after the strike on a pitch on the edge of the Orgreave coking plant where the main battles took place.”

Becoming a referee was not at the top of Webb’s list of childhood ambitions. Like any lad of his age he was football mad and aspired to play the game. “But by the age of 15 or 16 I realised that I hadn’t got the god-given talent to make it to the level that I wanted,” he says. “I was encouraged to become a referee by my father. He was the person who inspired me to take up the whistle and he’s been my biggest supporter as well as my fiercest critic. All three of our fathers will be in the stadium for the World Cup final and they’re all ex-referees.”

Another source of professional support and inspiration for Webb has been Jack Taylor, the referee who made history in 1974 by controversially awarding Holland the first ever penalty in a World Cup final. Occurring just a minute into the game, it was so early that the Germans had not even touched the ball when Taylor famously pointed to the spot.

“Jack Taylor is something of a refereeing legend in England,” explains Webb, “he was a great support to me in my early career. To take advice from someone like Jack was a real honour. We’ve spoken about his career and he tells some wonderful tales. He took a big decision in the first minute of that game in 1974 and part of our job in the final is also to take those sometimes courageous decisions, but we hope at the fulltime whistle people will be talking about a wonderful game of football and about all the players on show, not about the match officials. Of course, if a big decision has to be made, then we will step up to the plate and take the decision.”

Webb may have taken a five-year sabbatical from his job in the police to concentrate on football, but assistant Darren Cann believes the qualities needed to succeed in the force have helped Webb to become one of the finest referees in the game.

“I think Howard is the best man-manager in world football,” says Cann. “He controls the match as well as anybody and I think his physical presence certainly helps. He’s used to controlling people when he’s working with the police but now he takes those strengths onto the field of play.”

For all the authoritative qualities that have made Webb such a fine policeman and a successful referee, when told he was to officiate at the 2010 World Cup Final, the emotion of the occasion was enough to make this strong man cry. “All three of us shed a few tears after the announcement because this is the ultimate game. We cannot do any better in our careers than accept this wonderful honour of refereeing a World Cup final, so we had a few private moments together where we reflected on how we’d come to this point. We were greatly honoured and deeply thrilled by the appointment.”

To get the final gig, Webb has performed faultlessly at this World Cup. Always diplomatic off the pitch, he has only once stepped into the spotlight of controversy while on it. In that one moment he denied Italy’s appeal for an equalising goal against Slovakia, but it was Cann on the near touchline that made the call that day. However, unlike some of the other contentious decisions of this tournament, no action replay has yet been able to conclude whether it was a goal or not.

“It was the only decision that could be made from that position because Darren couldn’t see whether all of the ball had crossed the line,” says Webb. “Having looked back on the game it’s clearly the right decision. Sometimes things happen in football that are just impossible to see.

“Many people have said to us that the Italy v Slovakia game was one of the best of the tournament, certainly for excitement,” continues Webb. “It was a tight game with an exciting finish and from a referee’s point of view it means you have to work really hard right through to the end because you know the next decision could be a crucial one. It could be a match-changing decision and therefore you have to keep your focus right up to the very end and you have to be prepared to make a big decision if one comes along.”

“We see Howard as the pilot and Mike and I are the co-pilots and all we need to do is land the plane safely,” adds Cann. “There may be some turbulence along the way, there may be one or two unruly passengers throughout the course of the 90 minute flight, but we have to make sure that we keep our focus and that we make sure that with five minutes to go the runway is in sight. We need to make sure we keep that full concentration right up until the final whistle.”

The process of decision-making on the pitch has certainly been improved by the introduction of radio technology, which means that not only do the officials get to confer on key decisions, but also it opens a line of communication and reassurance throughout the game.

“Even with 70,000 people in the stadium, it could be quite a lonely place for the referee out in the middle of the pitch,” says Webb. “But now I’ve got my two mates in my ear, assisting me with decisions and making me aware of what’s happening behind my back. If they see friction between players they can alert me of it and there is a lot of motivation that goes on between us on that radio. We’re encouraging each other to keep working hard and to keep focussed.

Because of that it’s a much better place for me in the middle now, with my colleagues being able to speak to me on the radio. They’ll give me their opinions from the sidelines and they’ll encourage me if they think I’ve made a correct decision, so it’s a real positive thing.”

“There are times when a call isn’t black and white,” adds Cann, who quit his job as a bank manager in 2008 to turn professional in the run up to the World Cup. “If it’s a grey area and if you are thinking of wavering, then you have obviously got two other people on the microphones to give you that final push.”

For all that radio technology has helped the process of controlling a game of football, Webb is still non-committal about the introduction of other forms of technology, such a video replays or goal-line assistance.

“I’m a strong believer that football in its current form is a wonderful spectacle,” he says. “It’s a really beautiful game and some of the teams at this World Cup are playing fantastic football that is really attractive to watch. I certainly don’t feel that additional assistance would undermine my position but we have to consider that football is uniquely fluid in the way it is played and we need to take care that we don’t change the game.

“I can think of situations in matches that I did last season where within eight seconds of the ball being at one end, it’s at the other end and in the back of the goal. We need to make sure that we don’t introduce a stop-start culture. We need to protect the basic way that the game is played.”

While this refereeing trio carry the reputation of England into the final, Webb believes that it is of little consolation to football fans back home. “Whilst it’s extremely pleasing for us to make it this far in the tournament and to represent the Football Association at the final, I’m sure that your average football supporter in England really takes small comfort, if any, from the fact that we’ll be there instead of the England team.”

Yet he is proud of the achievement. For all the pressures that come with the job, on the eve of his greatest night in football, Webb believes that his trade is still worth the aggravation that comes as part of the package. “I choose to be here and I choose to be involved in this sport,” he says. “It’s not an easy job that we do and it can be very challenging, but nobody forces me to do it. When the game goes well it’s a wonderfully satisfying feeling, and there are thousands of people who would love to be in my shoes now.”

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