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Who’d be a referee?

JEFF WINTER was one of the best-known referees in the Premiership. He spoke to Brendan O’Brien about red cards, bad language and his toughest game.

UP until last Sunday, when some hardy soul brought him to see Antrim play Wicklow, Jeff Winter had never been to a gaelic football match. He had to laugh when people tried to tell him that Paddy Russell was too lenient with the transgressors at the ‘Battle of Omagh’.

"I’ve heard all about it," he nods.

"He booked 12, didn’t he? Sent off four. That sounds fairly strong to me."

Different sport, same old crap. Winter has seen the view from both sides of the fence. As a nipper he religiously walked a mile from his house to Ayresome Park to watch Middlesbrough play and join in the universal chant of ‘Who’s the b****** in the black?’ - the title of his newly published autobiography.

"Referees will always be the easy scapegoat," he says. "You do have the likes of Stuart Pearce who will tell you ‘I’m not here to criticise the referee. Our players didn’t play well enough today’. Most managers use the referee to deflect attention away from themselves.

"Could you imagine the chairman of a club saying, ‘did you hear the manager on radio today saying how he picked the wrong team, how he developed the wrong tactics? I think we’d better get a new manager’. No, blaming the ref is the easy option. I don’t see that changing."

According to Winter it wouldn’t take much to alleviate the pressure on the referees; offer them the microphone, he claims, and while people may not agree with what they say, at least a balanced debate would be possible ... which apparently is exactly what the FA, TV, advertisers and the media do not want.

"Sometimes an argument will rage on for days and the FA could have killed that, but then again, maybe killing it kills the story and we live in a world where stories like that sell papers," he explains.

"I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve got a radio phone-in show and if there’s no controversies I’ve no show.

"Robben dived against Liverpool - how long ago now? - and they’re still talking about it. There’s opinion polls, rule changes being mooted, big debates on Talk Sport, should it be a straight red for diving? If you took away the points of opinion, the points of interest, if you sanitised the game, you would kill a lot of interest in it.

"Fans love to get on the radio and TV and talk about it. Managers too, ex-pros, everybody is on the back of football which keeps it in that prominent position. If everything is black and white a lot of the interest goes away from the game. That’s not in the game’s best interests."

The ‘Beautiful Game’ has some ugly sides to it, not least the stream of invective aimed at referees by millionaire players acting like spoilt children. The letter of the law dictates that any foul and abusive language is deemed worthy of a red card. All very well for the prudish Victorians who wrote the book, but not very practical for the 21st century.

"We’ve moved into times where foul language is commonplace. I’ve sworn during this interview, you’ll probably have sworn by the end of it (not true Mum, honest). Say a simple situation where a player says "f***ing hell referee, that was never a f***ing foul" - there’s been two uses of foul language there but they weren’t malicious or personal. They were just words in a sentence.

"A player running 20 yards and screaming in my face, ‘you f***ing cheat’, he’s had 20 yards to think about it. That’s way over the top, red card, off you go. You do see players - Wayne Rooney is an example - using unacceptable language and the game is taking a hammering because of it."

The appetite to punish the top professionals for such ‘crimes’ simply doesn’t exist in the game in England, Winter believes.

"I think if a ref sent off Rooney one week, Thierry Henry the next and Frank Lampard the next, he would be pulled aside by the bosses and told, ‘alright, you’re getting your point across but ...’ The other point is there’s no point in one referee becoming a martyr and there’s a lot more going on out there that a ref has to be worried about than foul language."

Loose lips were the least of Winter’s worries back on February 15 2003 in an FA Cup game between Manchester United and Arsenal, which he instantly identifies as the toughest game he ever had to referee in the quarter century he spent whistling.

Paul Scholes set the tone with a crunching tackle on Patrick Vieira after just 45 seconds. It wasn’t long before those old pals Ruud van Nistelrooy and Martin Keown were exchanging more pleasantries and by the tenth minute a melee had broken out.

Just like Paddy Russell, Winter found the ire of some people - the two managers, Messrs Ferguson and Wenger especially - pointed towards him and not the players.

"In fairness, nothing could have prepared me for what happened in the first ten minutes. They just went at each other and, with the best will in the world, you’re thinking ‘f***ing hell, I can’t stop this’.

"If the players had wanted to continue like they had in the first ten minutes there would have been that many red cards that the game would have been abandoned.

"Fortunately, I spoke to Keane and Vieira and it seemed to kill it a little bit. At the end of the war a game of football broke out, but there was a time when that fixture appeared to becoming almost unrefereeable."

Much of that venom has drained from those clashes now that Chelsea have supplanted United and Arsenal and Keane and Vieira have left. Even then, in 2003, there were signs of a less volatile Roy Keane though and Winter had the perfect vantage point from which to view that.

"I would go along with that, yeah. He definitely mellowed but, then again, I wasn’t Alf Inge Haaland ... or Patrick Vieira."