This week, Johnny finds Howard Webb peering out of his telly from what looks suspiciously like the old Tactics Truck and ponders if he’s any good at this football on the telly business.
A deliciously smooth bald head which, when tanned, looks crafted by a Swiss confectioner.
One of those bald men who is unimaginable with hair.
Physically imposing and powerfully built. Wears those tight plain shirts in mid-blues and lavenders that are a hostage to fortune in the armpit staining department. Collar is always open, possibly because he can’t actually fasten his top button. Certainly seems to have a very thick neck, possibly made of brass, due to being a Yorkshireman.
Working on BT Sport is often to be seen peering out a darkened room that one suspects is the now fetid former Tactics Truck in which Andy Townsend lived for too long.
This week he was crammed on the edge of the BT Sport Champions League Goals Show desk – which by the way is a brilliant way to experience all of the games – and he looked at least 50% bigger than any of the others present, the way an adult does when sitting on a small child’s chair.
I’ve always thought some things would have Yorkshire accents, if they could speak. A leather sofa, coal tar soap, rolling pins, enamel mugs, wheelbarrows and dogs – all would speak in broad Yorkshire. Howard has the deep brown, resonant Rotherham accent you’d hear coming out of an over-sized wire-haired terrier that is waiting stoically outside a butchers.
Has a wide mouth and what appears to be a very wide tongue too – which is a tad disturbing. Delivers his viewpoint in the manner of a police officer documenting an arrest in court by reading out from a small black notebook. Quite a precise talker; there is very little waffle when he gets into his stride. However, he is pretty much only asked into the studio to discuss refereeing decisions, which seems a bit of a waste really because frequently, he’ll be the only one present who knows the actual rules of the game. As an aside, it is clear that many pundits genuinely don’t know the rules. Even now, most weeks you’ll hear some PFM talking about a tackle with no knowledge about what is deemed reckless and why it was punished.
Also, given he’s being asked to adjudicate the performance of former colleagues, you do feel he’s inhibited somewhat by personal relationships. It’d be nice if he could be encouraged to chip in with an anecdote about players he’s had to referee in a “yeah I booked him for calling me a bald c**t” sort of way. Needs some edge to his game, I feel.
Hits and misses
His biggest hit is to have climbed the loftiest peaks as a referee and worked on all of the biggest games. The only man to officiate the Champions League and World Cup Final in the same year in 2010 and that World Cup Final was surely one of the hardest matches anyone has had to do, handing out 14 bookings in doing so. Got an MBE for services to football. Rightly, acclaimed as a star of the reffing world.
Still unpopular with fans with long memories who despise him for giving decisions against their side. That seems very harsh though. No man, given his choice of career, could have achieved more and he was rightly rewarded for it.
His introduction into the media has been a bit off and on, and while he speaks with real authority, he’s not really yet been given his wings. Needs to stretch out and away from just commenting whether a challenge was penalty or not. This may require a bit more ambition from producers to give him a freer role.
Big club bias
It’s often said of him that he was biased towards Manchester United and the feeling that all referees seem to favour the biggest teams does still pervade. In his media work there’s no evidence of this though. And he’s President of Baris Northern Counties East Football League, which is about tier 897 in the football league pyramid. Supports Rotherham United, which is as humble a cultural pursuit as any you could fashion.
Loved or loathed?
The volume of Twitter responses this week was relatively low this week – possibly indicative of the small audience BT Sport has or the degree to which anyone gives a damn about Howard.
“Always a bit too reasonable, would be great if he said ‘no he got that decision totally f**king wrong’.”
“He always reminds me of Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes.”
“Comes across as hard but firm, like his refereeing.”
“Distrustful, tries too hard to be ‘one of the boys’. Audible reactions to tackles bring a grimace to my face.”
“Good on the telly, and a welcome change to the ex-footballer pundit.” (I totally endorse this. We need more unusual voices)
“Proper Officiating Man.”
“When he says things like ‘you can understand why he’s given it’ you see everything that is wrong about grey areas in the laws.”
“‘Expert’ who bottled sending off a player in a World Cup final. No thanks, I don’t want to hear his views.” (If making a mistake in your job disqualifies you from talking about that job, absolutely no-one would be able to say anything about anything. You do know that everyone who talks about football who was a footballer has also made legions of mistakes?)
“I like his accent! Still seems a bit uncomfortable on the telly doing anything other than talking about a specific incident.”
“Egomaniac?” (Don’t get that sense at all. If anything he hides his light under a bushel – whatever a bushel is)
“Saw him at a refs conference once, flirted outrageously with the female officials. Monster of a bloke.” (Seems harsh)
I don’t know why people take against referees so much, which brings us to…
Proper Football Man
Can a ref ever be a PFM? Of course not. You’ve got to know the rules to be a referee and, as previously stated, no PFM worth his Old Spice talcum powder knows the rules, but is always prepared to argue how the ref got a call wrong, despite an often a shocking degree of ignorance. Tackles that are deemed reckless? Eh? But he won the ball, Jeff. No-one knows what’s offside anymore; what does active mean? To be fair, the foreign boys invented diving. Anyway, a six-point lead is nothing these days, with three points for a win.
High profile refs are despised for being show ponies; low profile ones are despised for being anonymous nobodies. The PFM feels a duty to bully them at every turn and views them as losers who couldn’t make it as a player like what they did, even if they never had any desire to be a player. Being a players beats anything.
Refs are the specky swotty boy whose glasses they used to throw under the school bus. They also resent a man like that having any sort of authority over them. It feels innately emasculating, like using Twitter, drinking white wine, or female officials who can’t take a joke. Also, Howard was a copper, and most PFMs haven’t forgiven the police for their drink-driving ban, not to mention the little domestic with the ex-wife. It was just banter, officer. You know how it is when your dinner isn’t waiting for you when you get in.
But then, he was in the South Yorkshire force, which hasn’t exactly had an unblemished reputation, and the PFMs will make an exception for a bent copper, liking to keep them onside via free season tickets for clearing parking fines and getting lock-ins at rural boozers.
Having a sensible along for a night out means there’s always someone on hand to apologise for the dead dog in the bath, pay the chamber maid to say she saw nothing, or drive them to A & E after an intimate incident with a tyre inflating device. So he could have his uses.
And he’s a big unit is Howard so can probably drink for Britain. No Yorkshireman worth his millstone grit would turn down any free drink, no matter what it was, even if it comes via Reidy’s flask of oblivion. So downing an embalming fluid, Jeyes fluid and bodily fluid cocktail served would presumably be taken eagerly.
Married with three kids, so a frolic with Miss Extendable Truncheon and Assault Rifle Body of the Year 1990 wouldn’t go far. But a decent night out is not out of the question. Does he bring his yellow and red cards with him, Jeff? I don’t want to get sent off again for foul and abusive behaviour or get caught offside at the bar.
Beyond the lighted stage
Howard returned to the police force in April 2013. He is heading up a project team that work in partnership with the Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA, The South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner and local schools in providing free football coaching sessions for boys and girls aged from ten-years to nineteen-years across South Yorkshire. He is ambassador for SportFX South Yorkshire and is contracted to work for South Yorkshire Police ten-hours per week and spends the majority of his time working to promote the initiative.
In July 2011 he received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Bedfordshire and in November 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Degree from York St John University as a Doctor of Health Sciences, which sounds very random.