Howard Webb: Gaffes hurt refs as much as players

As the television replays showed Thierry Henry’s handball on an endless loop, Howard Webb reached for his mobile phone.

Howard Webb: Gaffes hurt refs as much as players

“I wanted to call Martin on his mobile to tell him to give the handball,” says Webb, with a rueful smile.

“Obviously he didn’t have his phone on him on the pitch to take the call though!”

The Martin he is referring to is Hansson, the Swedish referee who presided over that fateful night when Ireland’s hopes of reaching the 2010 World Cup were dashed at the Stade de France.

In the competitive and ruthless world of top-level refereeing, Webb considered Hansson his closest friend. Also rivals, they thought they were competing to officiate in the final stages of the World Cup in South Africa.

Webb would go on to take charge of the final while Hansson disappeared from sight, his career ruined by his failure to spot Henry’s handball as France edged Ireland out in the play-offs.

He also changed as a man, Webb believes. As an insight into the strange world of refereeing – always seen but never heard from – Webb’s thoughts on Hansson’s difficulties are instructive.

“If anyone thinks he walked away from that game thinking it didn’t matter,” Webb says before allowing the sentence to trail off.

“He did go to that World Cup but only worked as a fourth official. He would have been a shoo-in to take games at that tournament and he was probably my best mate in refereeing at the time.

“We stay in touch. He was gutted, he was devastated. He was probably never quite the same referee again.

“He dropped down from the elite level and he still referees locally in Sweden in the top league.

“It probably changed him as a man as well. There was a very interesting documentary about him, it was dark and about his life around that time. It’s worth having a watch.

“Its no consolation to the Irish national team but still that hurt him a lot.

“It was a clear handball, it needs to be called correctly and it wasn’t. It had huge consequences for the Irish team and huge consequences for Martin Hansson and his team on and off the pitch.”

Webb is at pains to make clear that decisions matter just as much to the referees as those they affect. He details his run-ins with Irish players, and recalls one incident which best demonstrates the strange nature of officialdom.

“I remember Martin O’Neill came to see me at Sunderland on Boxing Day a few years ago,” he explains.

“I gave a penalty to Everton for a foul by Lee Cattermole on Leon Osman. It looked clear to me at the time.

“On video, you can’t see any contact and it looks like he clipped his own heel. Martin came in after the game and asked me about this. I said to him what I had seen.

“He wasn’t very happy so what I said was I’d have a look at it with him on the DVD. We could see there was no contact so I was really, really disappointed about the decision I had made.

“To be fair to Martin, by the time he left the room he had ended up counseling me about the fact I made the mistake. He said ‘don’t let it ruin your Christmas, these things happen’.”

Webb hasn’t always had it so easy with current members of the Irish setup.

“I used to have a bit of conflict with Robbie Keane,” he smiles. “He was someone I really liked as a player but the harder I tried to get on with him the harder it was.

“There was a game at Chelsea when he was playing for Spurs and he thought there should have been a red card and a penalty. He chased me all the way down the pitch!

“But you could have some good craic on the pitch with the Irish boys. They were usually good talkers and people who would actually want to enter into a bit of banter with you.

“People like John O’Shea, Richard Dunne. Good guys to latch onto if you’re having a bad game. They would help you control their team.”

Speaking to Webb, what also shines through is the mental side of the game, and how everyone engages in a little gentle intimidation.

He details how Mick McCarthy would always deliver the team sheet in person, accompanying it with a firm handshake and a look ‘for any weakness in the referee’.

What has Webb, a former policeman, learnt during his career?

That more can be done to help referees — particularly when it comes to technology.

“It’s right and proper that we do things slow, I’ve seen many bad laws passed working as a copper,” he adds.

“You need to do it step by step. Let’s have a live trial for some video technology and let’s see if we can cut those situations (such as Hansson’s mistake) out.

“My view on video technology changed at that point.”

BT Sport presenter and pundits Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, Steven McManaman, Owen Hargreaves and Howard Webb were speaking at the launch of BT Sport’s UEFA Champions League coverage for the 2015/16 season in London. BT Sport is only available to Irish viewers through the Setanta Sports Pack. The Setanta Sports Pack will broadcast live coverage of all UEFA Champions League matches this season along with being the only place to see Liverpool, Celtic and Spurs in Thursday night’s Europa League. To subscribe visit 

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