From Motherwell bridgeworks to a world cup final

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KENNY Clark’s face was a picture. Having reached the age of 45, I was having to retire from the FIFA list, and I was refereeing my final match on international soil, a Champions League match between Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen. As the fourth official he’d just asked me how long I wanted added on at the end of the match and, jokingly, I held up both hands and suggested 10, not because there was a lot of injuries or time-wasting but because I really didn’t want it all to end.

It had been a magnificent journey that had started in 1988, when, as a wide-eyed and naive referee I had travelled to Italy as one of the legendary Bob Valentine’s linesmen for the Sampdoria v Carl Zeis Jena, Cup-Winners’ Cup tie and since then I’d been all over the world, refereeing some of the best players and teams and been privileged to be involved in the best tournaments.

Throughout it all and regardless which world-class stars I’d refereed, I’d always managed to remain detached from the emotion that surrounds so many of these games and can leave you open to error if you’re not careful, but in the San Siro Stadium that night, I admit, I was finding it hard to stay 100% focused.

My sons had both flown out to Italy for the match and I knew exactly where they were in the stand and it was my friends and colleagues Wilson Irvine and David Doig who were running the line, while Kenny, with whom I’d spent those early years, when we were both flagmen for Bob and then Brian McGinlay, was my fourth man. It was a special, special night and it would have been easy to get emotional and carried away with it all but I knew that I couldn’t afford to let that happen.

I knew that I had to be professional to the last and the players made sure I was, giving me an 89th-minute test. Bernd Schneider thought that he’d scored an equaliser for Leverkusen but the way that I saw it he’d only beaten Inter goalkeeper Francesco Toldo to the cross because he’d used his hand, so I chalked off the ‘goal’ and booked him. I called it as I saw it and prayed that I’d got it right. Thankfully, television proved that I had and I’ll always be grateful for that.

Before the match I’d probably been more nervous than I had been prior to a game for a good while but that was because I knew this was it; my last game on this stage and if I cocked it up there would be no chance to redeem myself. I wanted everything to be perfect.

In the end the match was memorable for all the right reasons. As I blew the final whistle (in the end I put Kenny out of his misery and signalled for the correct three minutes of added on time) I looked up at my sons and really tried to remember and savour the moment. I still get a lump in my throat thinking back to it. But that wasn’t the end of it. When I got back to the dressing room, I was presented with a friendship quaich from my FIFA colleagues in Scotland and gifts from the teams. Everyone made sure it was a night I will never forget.

But there have been so many of those on the international stage over the past 15 years. It’s a fact that more men have been on the moon than have refereed a World Cup final, yet I was there, in Japan last year, as the fourth official when Brazil beat Germany to win the tournament. That was utopia.

You just cannot go any higher than the World Cup final and to be one of the four officials involved in the biggest game on the planet was way beyond probably anybody’s wildest dreams, apart from maybe the top-class players who play for top-class football nations. Apart from those few players, although everyone dreams, I doubt many people really believe they could be involved in a World Cup final.

I know some people in Scotland had been suggesting that I might actually get to referee the match but I wasn’t holding out much hope, especially when Korea knocked out Italy, leaving the way clear for my good friend Pierluigi Collina.

When the announcement was made there was no disappointment, I genuinely thought it was unbelievable just to be involved in the game and I’d like to think that nobody on the planet would be against the appointment of Pierluigi as he’s a magnificent guy and a magnificent referee and I was genuinely pleased for him. If there was anybody other than myself whom I wanted to referee a World Cup final it was Pierluigi and I think the choice was vindicated when you saw the way he handled the game. He’s a born referee and even at my level I was still learning things watching him in that game.

But refereeing has always been a learning curve. When I think back to that first trip aboard in 1988, I can hardly believe how naive I was but I learned so much just by watching guys like Bob Valentine, who was a master and is still highly-respected abroad, and then Brian McGinlay. Brian was getting all the big games so you saw the shirt pulling and the diving and the spitting and the gesturing about how much the opposition was going to pay you after the game, suggesting you were bribed. And, although when the day came it was still a bit of a shock, that experience did help prepare me for when I started refereeing those games myself and for when all the foreign players started coming into our domestic game.

The biggest thing to deal with abroad, or the thing which I found hardest to come to terms with was how easily players went to ground. Abroad they tend to get fouls for that so when I wasn’t giving fouls the crowd were on my back and the tempo of the game was lifted and it got highly charged so I soon learned that I had to let players know very, very quickly that I wasn’t going to give fouls for diving and that’s sometimes difficult with the language difficulties. I remember Brian McGinlay telling me there were two ways to referee, domestically and internationally, and that’s true and I had to adjust very quickly.

Here you can run alongside a player and say ‘hey, I saw that and I’m not having it’, but abroad some players don’t understand you so its all body language and pointing to the pocket where the cards are. Body language is a huge thing when refereeing abroad but I found once the players trusted you and got to know your style they’d quickly adapt and wouldn’t go down so easily.

I really believe that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression so at the meeting with representatives of the two teams, the police, the ambulance service, on the morning of a game I always take the opportunity to let them know what I will and won’t tolerate on the field and then it’s up to them to tell their players and I always tell them I will be very strict on diving.

I am very firm in those meetings and what you’re hoping is that they will go back to the players and say ‘woah, lads, don’t go trying anything, this one’s a bomb scare’. When Kenny’s my fourth official, we have a pretty effective double act, which helps. I always tell the coaches that all the guys in the technical area must be well-behaved because bad behaviour in the technical area leads to bad behaviour on the field and I tell them that my fourth official is crazy, really crazy and Kenny sits beside me looking really mean and scowling at them and the majority look at us like we’re mad but more often than not it works. Kenny’s great at acting it out!

The play-acting was definitely the toughest thing to get used to at first but my experience abroad helped me here. I honestly think we’ve done well with our foreigners here. Generally they adjust fairly quickly and you know the ones who are new because they still tend to go to ground that bit easier than those who have been here a while and have learned that won’t be tolerated or that referees won’t be fooled. Because of that, generally speaking, we don’t have a problem with simulation or spitting or shirt pulling, especially compared to football elsewhere and I think referees in Scotland need to be given credit for that. I think the guys have got it pretty well mastered up here.

Abroad, and even down south, that’s not the case and while there’s no particular player who continually dives or shirt pulls, outside Scotland you always have to be alert to the wee tricks or the wee clip of their opponents’ heels.

That’s why I loved games such as the World Cup qualifier between Uruguay and Brazil in Montevideo in 2001. Those games always have the capacity to be a real challenge and you are tested from the first minute to the last. As a Scot, to be invited by CONMEBOL, which is the equivalent of UEFA in South America, to take charge of one of the most important fixtures on their calendar was pretty special and that was a magnificent game. In fact, it was a magnificent trip from the minute we left home.

We were there for just under a week, between time differences and preparing for the game and then the day of the game, and the whole thing was just something else. Sometimes games pass in a bit of a whirl, and, as a referee you are so busy concentrating that there are times I come off the field and someone will say, ‘what a fantastic game’ or ‘that was beautiful football’ and I’ll say ‘was it?’ because I’ve been so busy watching feet to see whose diving or homing in on two players jostling in the box, that I haven’t really been able to take in the bigger picture but I could probably tell you every minute of that game in Montevideo.

I can recall every caution in the game, every incident because it was such a magnificent game and thankfully it was controversy free which is always what a referee looks for. Especially as there was quite a bit of pressure on us to get it right that day. A European team of officials had been across for the previous game between Uruguay and Paraguay and it hadn’t gone as well for the refereeing team and they actually had to be escorted to the airport.

That was pretty hairy for them but it also meant that Uruguay weren’t happy that another European team of officials had been selected to referee the game against Brazil, so the spotlight was on us going there. But we left there minus the police escort and with our credibility intact and that was very, very satisfying. It was just a magnificent experience.

That’s the kind of game I point to when people question the sanity of anyone wanting to become a referee. What’s insane about wanting to travel the world, share the football field with the sport’s greatest talents and get as close to the action as anyone when the big events come calling?

I’ve refereed at two World Cups, a European Championships and the Olympics and I’ve officiated in countries all over the world, on Champions League, UEFA Cup, Super Cup, and international duty. Yes, refereeing can be lonely at first but the rewards when you move up the ladder are plentiful.

I’ve enjoyed a close-up view of footballing superstars such as France's Zinedine Zidane, Brazil’s Ronaldo and getting a close-up view of what these guys can do with a ball at their feet is something to be savoured. It’s a long way from my first match in charge of Motherwell Bridgeworks v Victoria and that’s why it was so emotional that night in Milan.

An extra ten minutes added on? I’d have played an extra hour if I thought I could’ve got away with it. I’d like to have seen Kenny’s face then!

Interviews by Moira Gordon