iCanRef: Mike Stoddart
One of the most frequently asked questions of a referee is, 'Why did you become one?' There are many reasons why people take up the whistle e.g. the player who retires from the game but still wants the involvement, the father of a junior player whose team never get a referee, the player whose career is curtailed by injury etc. I fall into the category, 'If you can't beat em join em.' I was an avid Leeds United supporter from the 60's through to 1976 when I became a referee. I travelled home and away and also into Europe witnessing some of the finest football of the era. Unfortunately, the success and enjoyment was punctuated by some of the worst refereeing decisions I have ever seen. Leeds v West Brom 1971. The controversial offside goal. Leeds v AC Milan 1973. The European Cup Winners Cup Final in Salonika where the Referee was bribed & Leeds v Bayern Munich 1975. The European Cup Final in Paris with the disallowed penalty and offside goal for Leeds. I attended all these matches which will forever be remembered for the wrong reasons.
Following a serious motor scooter accident in 1970 where I badly broke my kneecap, I was adviced not to play football again. At the time I was also playing tennis at my local club Rothwell and doing very well so that was to be my sporting avenue for the future. I joined Castleford T.C. in 1974 and started playing Yorkshire League tennis and won 2 tournaments. Things were going well but in June 1976 whilst playing in a match in Wakefield I tore the ligaments in my wrist and was strapped up for over 2 months. During that period a social event was arranged between Castleford T.C. and Castleford R.U. club to play a game of football on their rugby field. The call went out for someone to take charge of the match and because I knew something about the game with following Leeds Utd and with my arm in a sling I was 'volunteered' the be the referee. Here was my chance to 'join em'. Would I be able to carry it off or would I be made to look a fool? Thankfully everything went extremely well and having big powerful rugby players showing me respect and calling me' Sir'; at the age of 23 did wonders for my confidence. The seed had been sown and it was not long before I was enrolling in a referees course at John Waddington’s Leeds prompted by a local referee who I'd been watching, he said 'If you can do any better lad get yourself on a course. There's one starts on Monday. 'And so I did!
After 10 weeks of expert tuition on the laws of the game, the exam to pass loomed large. It had been my intention at this stage to qualify but not officiate but all that changed when I was shamed into doing a game on the Sunday before the exam in the Leeds Sunday League. My mate Jack; who was also taking the exam had volunteered, would be refereeing on the next pitch so I was somewhat railroaded into a situation. Having now gone out and bought all the kit it was too late to turn back now. Sunday 30th October 1976 arrived and Jack and I stepped nervously out of the changing rooms at Temple Newsam, East Leeds. Our pitches were the furthest away so it was a long walk, which gave us plenty of time to reflect on just what we were letting ourselves into. I remember Jack's last words to me as we parted, 'Look confident.' As I entered the field both teams Trident Sports and Leeds V.A.T. were warming up. I was approached by a man with 2 bits of paper who introduced himself as the Secretary of the home team. He asked me if I wouldn't mind signing a new player on for his team. As I didn't want to make it obvious that I was new to the game I readily agreed without question. On looking closely at the name on the registration form I said, ‘That’s not THE Mike O'Grady; ex England and Leeds Utd player is it?' expecting the answer to be in the negative. 'Yes it is.' replied the Secretary, 'He's just started working for the company'. Trident Sports I found out later were Yorkshire Television! 'What a start,' I thought to myself. The match went extremely well with the home-side winning 7-0. At one point in passing to an opponent, O'Grady hit me with the ball and apologised to me. I said, 'No problem Mike' and carried on not believing what was happening.
Afterwards I reflected on how well things had gone and that I thought how I was going to like this. You soon come to realise as a referee that life is a roller coaster with plenty of ups and downs. As long as you have more ups, then life is fine. No matter how good a referee you there are going to be a time when things go wrong.
Three people forged me into what I am today. Firstly 2 wonderfully strong Wakefield based Referees; Johnny Grinsell and Colin Braithwaite who; and I can’t remember why, decided to take me under their wing and gave me the advice and support that every up and coming Referee should be eternally grateful for. When I made it onto the Football League they were the first people I informed…and thanked. The third person and equally as important was the late Wilf Keyworth, Secretary, Fixture and Ref Appt. Secretary of the West Yorkshire League. His knowledge, wisdom and encouragement was the main reason I climbed the ladder to the top. It’s no point being a good Referee and not having the right level of diplomacy. Wilf taught me all about that and was even instrumental in getting me to become a Magistrate. A truly great man and someone I was so privileged to have as a friend.
Coming off the pitch after a match and someone comes up to you and says, ‘Well done Ref. You had a good game today.’ When that happens, it drives you on to continue. My greatest achievement is being still able at the age of 68 to run around the football field sometimes 5 times a week. Getting promoted to the FA Premier League of course was the icing on the cake but Grassroots Football is just as important to me.
After 45 years service and 4317 games under my belt; I sadly know that because I've kept a record of every game I've done, why do I continue. Everyone has to start off at the bottom and hopefully with experience move up the ladder. I set myself goals; the first being to officiate at Elland Rd. After achieving that after just 4 months I had to revise my target which was get on the Yorkshire League, now the NCE League. Achieving that after 10 seasons my next goal was the Football League Line which amazingly happened 3 years later. Now at the age of 36 and the years running out; retirement then was 44 I knew my last target of officiating in an F.A. final and promotion to the FA Premier League was a long shot but luckily I managed to achieve both; Lining on the Women’s and then Sunday Cup Finals and spending 3 years on the Premier League with a trip to a EUFA Cup in Denmark as a bonus. Dreams can come true!
So why do I continue. Now after 24 years in the game the only way is down. Assessing was beckoning and offered but I declined. With most of my colleague who retired hanging up their whistles I thought of all that wasted experience that Grassroots football could benefit from and so I returned to the League which had nurtured me; the West Yorkshire League and the great Wilf Keyworth, who not only was League Secretary but Fixture and Appointments Secretary as well. Wilf; an ex Football League man himself was not the easiest of men to get on with but I always showed him respect and never let him down. He told me latter that he saw some of my 'stand up and be counted' attitude in a younger version of him and there is no doubt about it that without his guidance and encouragement I would not have made it. There are always plenty of people in the refereeing fraternity who are willing to help.
So I ask myself every season why do I continue. The answer is simple; I just love the game. I love the challenge that every match throws up knowing that however experienced you are there is always something new to learn, something that has never happened before. To be a referee you have to be a master of so many traits. Fitness, man management skills, good knowledge of the laws of the game, communications skills, enthusiasm, discipline, availability, impartiality, honestly commitment; I could go on but what better to have on your CV than that your hobby is being a Football Referee. What does that say about you. Give him/her the job. The rewards in the game are greater than ever if you're aiming for the top. If the Premier League is not attainable for you then there is still plenty to achieve at local level.
Living off the past doesn’t help me control a game of football. I have to prove myself every time I put on that black shirt. Yes, reputation does count for a lot but its experience that gets me through my games. Remember it's better to be respected than be liked. I consider myself privileged to still be able to run around the football field at the age of 68. My enthusiasm for the game is greater than ever and I hope to continue as long I am physically able. There is no finer feeling than coming off a game and knowing that the reason both sides are shaking hands is because you've controlled the game well.