Howard Webb is a Premier League referee on whom opinion is split. A former policeman, he’s regarded highly by some as a referee that makes fair decisions and is one of the best whistlers in the British game.
Others however, most recently Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, don’t hold him in such high regard. The Northern Irishman raged that Webb had "bottled it" after failing to award his side a penalty during the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley.
It’s not just the big occasions Webb referees. FourFourTwo.com caught up with him at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday, where Webb was taking charge of the Sheffield University/Hallam Varsity mens football finals.
Thankfully there are no cards needed on this occasion and as he chats to us, he’s both personable and thoughtful, a complete juxtaposition to some of the criticism that’s been levelled at him.
Watching the university students play will no doubt have reminded him of his own playing days, back when he dreamed of turning professional.
Born in 1971, Webb had trials with teams both locally and further afield, yet none offered the professional contract he craved, even though he himself has admitted: “I thought I was an OK player.”
Webb has set records in handing out cards. His three red cards in the 2007 Carling Cup final, in which John Obi Mikel, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor were all dismissed, was the first time three reds had been handed out in a League Cup final.
Prior to that game, only three red cards had been shown in all of the previous League Cup finals, proving that when it comes to discipline, Webb is certainly not intimidated by the occasion.
This surely can only be a good thing as the Rotherham-born referee is one of 30 officials that have been selected to take charge at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
For Webb, going to the World Cup is bittersweet. He wants England to win it, but would love the opportunity to referee the World Cup final and knows that if England get there his chances of taking charge of the final evaporate.
How does it feel to think that this summer you’ll be refereeing at the 2010 World Cup?
“I’m delighted to get the selection to go the World Cup. It’s been a long process, and I’ve been involved in it for three years. A shortlist was drawn up in 2007 which has been whittled down to 30 people. There’s 30 of us going out there, 30 referee teams. I’m delighted, excited and looking forward to being involved in what will be an unbelievably, amazing spectacle I’m sure and just to be part of it is just a dream come true.”
Do you think that England can win it this year?
“I do, I think there’s a large number of teams that could actually win it this year. You need a little bit of good fortune and you need to keep your best players fit, we all know who England’s best players are and we need to keep those fit. And if they do, and if they get a bit of a rub of the green and things fall into place then who knows.
“It’s mixed emotions in some respects because the better England do, the less opportunities I’ll have to continue to the final stages of the tournament, but its a price worth paying. If you think about the buzz it’d give English football, for the English national team to win something like the World Cup, it would boost all aspects of football and I’ be delighted if they did well over there.”
Being selected to referee at the World Cup is a massive achievement and one Webb would never have dreamed of when he first started out refereeing back home in Rotherham at the age of 19.
His dad Bill Webb, also a referee, convinced him to take it up. Webb refereed in the Northern Counties Eastern League from 1996, before being included in the national list of Football League referees in 2000. In 2003 Webb took charge of first game in the Premier League, before receiving �his FIFA badge in 2005 at the age of 34.
Whilst Webb was working his way through the ranks and policing individual professional football matches throughout the UK, he was also still policing closer to home, back on the streets of the notorious Manor Estate in Sheffield.
Indeed, some weeks Webb was working 20 hours for the police, before taking charge of a Premier League game.
Webb was one of the officers who helped police crowds at Hillsborough during Euro 96. Three European Championships later and he was in charge of the teams.
You’re a local lad, born and bred in Rotherham, how did you get involved in refereeing?
“I’ve always been football mad from as far back as I can remember really. Playing, watching, that sort of thing. I had ambitions of being a professional footballer, I had trials down at Rotherham United and I thought I was an OK player, but clearly you have to be that special and be a bit lucky and I was probably neither.
"When I realised I wasn’t going to make the grade that I wanted to, it was a choice between playing lower league football or amateur football. My dad, who was a referee himself, encouraged me to think about becoming a referee, and that was the other option really.
"At first I wasn’t interested but I thought it’d be nice to have some other people with me and when I was 18 I went down and did a course with a mate of mine and it all progressed from there really, I never knew if I’d be any good at it – and some people would probably say I’m not – but I quite enjoyed doing and did it alongside playing for a while and then the refereeing took over and that was 21 years ago.”
When did the refereeing take over and become your full time job?
“I started in refereeing in 1989, made it onto the middle of the Football League in 2000, so that was 11 years ago, and then three years later I got a contract with the Premier League. At which time I dropped my hours in the police to part time, did half hours from 2003 until 2008, by which time I’d become an international referee as well, and was heading out to the European Championships in Austria, Switzerland and decided I couldn’t juggle the two careers so took a career break from the police, I’m still on the staff if you like of the police, but at the minute not doing any hours.
"I’m on a career break just to concentrate on the football. It takes so much of my time up, particularly with travel for Champions League stuff and full internationals and tournaments."
You’ve been at Hillsborough taking charge of the university Varsity men’s finals. How did you find it?
“It’s been fantastic. I got the call three or four weeks ago to ask would I be interested in doing it? I said of course I would, I knew it would be a competitive affair and I knew the crowd would get behind the guys and they have done. The fans from both teams were unbelievable, even the Sheffield Uni supporters at the end when they were 2-0 down kept cheering the team on.
"I thought the standard of football was excellent, really excellent. The level of fair play was outstanding, the guys accepted the decisions and got on with them, there was nothing controversial in the game, probably the best team ran out winners in the end, but for long periods it was very close and Sheffield had their moments as well and I think the guys can take a lot of credit for their efforts.”
Obviously it’s not refereeing at the World Cup or in the Premier League but is it something you’d be interested in doing again?
“I would love to referee the varsity football again. Being a local lad, only living in Rotherham, I’ve worked in Sheffield for many years in the police as well. I was a sergeant down at West Bar for seven years so Sheffield’s close to my heart. It’s been nice to come down to Hillsborough; it’s a good venue for this.
"I’ve been involved in other Varsity games,� I did the Cambridge University-Oxford University game last year down at Fulham. This is right up there with that one, it really is, in terms of standards of play and the atmosphere in the stadium, it’s been a great event. I know the guys who played have come from all over the country, but I’m sure there’ll have been some local guys out there and I think Sheffield can be proud of its two universities and the teams performance today.”
Looking at the Football League and the Championship this season, with Newcastle and West Brom already up, who do you fancy to go up through the play-offs?
“It's certainly a marathon. Look at Nottingham Forest, they’ve had a good run for a long period, then they fell away a little bit but they’ve still had a great season."
Do you think the play-off winners be strong enough to stay up?
“You just hope that when they get into the Premier league, whichever team it is from the play-offs, that because they have a later start in terms of their preparation, that they make a good fist of it next year. The Premier League needs strong teams to come up and stay up and we’ve had that in the last couple of years.
"Look at Birmingham City, they’ve had a great time in the Premier League this season. Hull City managed to stay up last season, so you just hope that they make a good fist of it next year and that they don’t get caught adrift like Derby County did a few years ago.”
Speaking to Webb, it’s obvious that refereeing is his life. Having done it for over 20 years, there seems no sign he intends to stop anytime soon. One thing is obvious though, he wishes more people would get involved and take it up professionally.
According to the Football Association website, almost 20 percent of the games being played in certain areas of the UK are done so without a qualified match official, which Webb believes heightens the chances of the game being damaged as a result.
What would you say to persuade people to give refereeing some serious thought?
“I’d encourage anybody to give it a go. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but for people who’ve got a real desire for the game and maybe want to stay involved in some other way, rather than playing or just watching, it can gave you a real sense of satisfaction, even if its just getting half a dozen handshakes from the players coming off the field at the end of the game. We’re so desperately short of referees and the number of games that are played without a qualified referee, it really damages the game.”
How do you think this problem can be solved?
“It’s easily solved. If we can get more people involved and get them out there, hopefully get people to respect the guys and girls that do take up the whistle and realise that the game does need a referee.”
Looking back on your career, do you think that your own career is an example of making it as a success in the world of professional refereeing?
“Definitely. There is a career path to the very top, I’m living proof of that. When I first started 20 years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed I could make a living from this. But when I go out on Saturday afternoons to referee a game of football, that’s my way of earning a living. It’s a great opportunity it’s given me and it’s available to anyone who starts out and is young enough. Give it a go, see what you think and get some satisfaction from playing an important part in the game.”
Interview: Chris Conway, April 2010