Football might be renowned as a ‘funny old game’, but such is the current obsession with figureheads that top-flight managers are becoming ‘brands’ in their own right. There’s already an elite group readily identified by their first names, amongst them Jose, Pep, Jurgen and Arsene; it’s the type of instant recognition on which marketing agencies will happily spend millions of other people’s money achieving, yet these guys attain it by virtue of doing their day jobs.
Yet if the cult of the manager is an easy-ish concept to understand, that of the referee is more difficult to comprehend.
It probably began a few years ago when the dome-headed (and extremely good) referee, Italian Pierluigi Collina, was amongst the first to be instantly recognisable. Whether he set out to do this is a matter of conjecture, but recently, we’ve seen Premier League referees such as 41-year-old Mark Clattenburg and Michael Oliver, ten years his junior, differentiate themselves from their peers, knowingly or otherwise.
In Clattenburg’s case, a series of football-related tattoos were inked onto his forearm, while Oliver had his barber shave a couple of go-fast stripes into his hair directly above his ear. What either man thought these moves would do for their credibility is anyone’s guess.
It’s difficult to imagine Howard Webb, who refereed the Champions League and World Cup finals, being so ostentatious. Webb, a down-to-earth, thoroughly decent chap, was a no-nonsense official in the Jack Taylor mould, a man who, like Taylor, a Wolverhampton butcher, had a ‘real’ job away from football.
His autobiography, The Man in the Middle is, in many respects, precisely what you would expect: solid, humorous in parts, sprinkled with occasional industrial language. There’s very little of what might be termed ‘look at me’ narrative, primarily because Webb was an official who simply got on with his job in the hope that he helped the flow of whichever game he was officiating.
Webb is very good when it comes to identifying those things fans forget about, such as their often stilted relationships with managers (a good thing) and the enormous pressure referees are under. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can give them flak, usually with the benefit of a dozen slo-mo replays, but guys like Webb must get it right first time; and, more often than not, they do.
You fancy Webb would hate to think that his book propelled him into the burgeoning list of z-list celebs; it won’t because this is a thoughtful, often engaging, autobiography.