The English referee Jeff Winter (1955) could hardly have imagined the turn his career would take when he was a “boot boy” in the ranks of the Middlesbrough hooligans in the 1970s. A far from happy childhood and this “hobby” were threatening to push his life in the wrong direction. However, seeing the hard, shining steel of a rival London hooligan’s blade turned things around for him. An early marriage and a responsible job at a bank also helped. It was at this bank that a regular customer – the secretary of a county FA – challenged him into taking up the black. Never shying from a challenge, Winter took him up on it.
It was 1979 when Winter mounted the first rung of the ladder, quickly coming to the realisation that his nonchalant attitude towards fitness was an obstacle: “you have to be fit to referee, not referee to be fit“. His laissez-faire attitude to the players was also noted by his assessors. Ambitious as he was, Winter changed tack. Soon his assessments were improving and he quickly moved up the ladder. As early as in 1986 he was promoted to the Football League, and appointed fourth referee at the FA Cup Final only three years later.
Professional football was changing rapidly at the time. The institution of the Premiership (now Premier League), the influx of large sums of sponsor money and other factors also raised expectations of referees, on the field of play and off it. Winter tells in great detail of his experiences and run-ins with players, managers and officials, dedicating a full chapter to his (in)famous clash with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and the disciplinary case that followed. Winter was also among the first batch of professional referees, becoming a close observer of politics in the refereeing world in particular and football in general.
Winter’s zenith (and as he sees it: reward) came when he was almost not expecting it any longer: being assigned the FA Cup Final of 2004, the highest honour that can be bestowed upon an English referee. After ending his refereeing career, Winter assessed for a while, being sacked by the FA/PGMOL for upsetting people high up FA ranks. It afforded him the freedom to pursue a career in speaking and the media, and write these memoirs, for the PGMOL forbids its referees by contract to disclose anything.
Value for active referees
Not very high.
Jeff Winter’s is an honest, straight-talking account of his life and his career, and he does not gloss over the mistakes he made in both. His story tells clearly how long it can take and how much sacrifices you have to make to reach the top rung of the ladder. In that respect, this is good book. And whilst Winter fails to give many hints and tips for practical use, there is a clear undertone throughout the pages that you have to show a great deal of dedication as well as the will to improve yourself and thus make a name for yourself.
In other respects, Winter’s account falls a little flat on paper, for the anecdotes become slightly long-winded and sort of fizzle out. No matter how honest his story is and how poignant the examples of politics, nepotism and objectionable influences at the top of professional football may be, you cannot help thinking that they would sound better hearing them told by Jeff himself. After all, Winter has carved out a nice sideline as a speaker and raconteur these days. Also, he is prone to some vanity, a trait he shares with not a few referees. That may be the reason why he fails to devote any paragraph, let alone a chapter, to making trips abroad for UEFA or FIFA matches, which is a staple of referee memoirs. Until you realise that Winter never made the international referee lists. Perhaps a bruise to his ego prevented him from mentioning this.
The frustration that may have been at the root of Winter’s dismissal from the FA – which was shared by some of his colleagues (that much is clear from contemporary biographies) – is very well handled in Winter’s very personal history. Winter does not skimp on venting his anger at the enormous influence sponsor money and the top clubs have on the “spineless” FA, a fact that comes across most clearly in his account of the Ferguson trial. Unsurprisingly, it is not easy for referees to keep their footing in such environment (and many do not). Jeff Winter’s memoirs don’t lose their footing, but they’re a tough read at times. However, having finished them, you can truly say you have gained something from them, even though practical tips are few and far between.
Is this the best biography ever written by a top referee, as Winter himself once quoted on Twitter? Time will tell, but if you ask me, there are better ones out there.
|Title||Who’s the B*****d in the Black? Confessions of a Premiership Referee|