OOH, look! An Englishman is still in the World Cup! No, wait – three of them! Maybe this could be a glorious summer for English football after all, thanks to that bald chap from Rotherham with the whistle.
Say what you like about the state of English football – its concentration of wealth at the top, the reckless accruing of debt, the preference for imports at the expense of home-grown talent, the tunnel-vision focus on short-term gain – at least we are still producing our own referees.
You don’t see Keith Hackett (or, to give him his official title, “referees’ supremo Keith Hackett”) putting the Professional Game Match Officials Board £20million in debt to buy in a fancy South American referee who looked great on YouTube.
No, we still have refs who come from Kendal and Waterlooville and Orpington, and other towns and villages that would never otherwise be mentioned in connection with the Premier League. And in the case of Howard Webb and his assistants Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey, the World Cup.
In fact, the way the game in this country is going, any English youngster dreaming of making it to the Premier League would probably be better off taking up a whistle at 14.
Webb is England’s top referee, and has won praise for the way he has officiated at this World Cup. With England having gone home, there is even talk of him becoming the first English referee to take charge of a World Cup final since Jack ‘two penalties’ Taylor in 1974.
(Could this be an excuse for a 47th revamp of the Lightning Seeds’ shopworn classic ‘Three Lions’? All together now: “Three blows on my whistle/Webb’s bald head’s still gleaming.” Desperate, I know.)
He wasn’t always championed in this way. In May 2004, towards the end of his first season as a Premier League referee, Webb got a pasting from the pundits for awarding Aston Villa a soft penalty during a Premier League game at Southampton.
Webb judged that Danny Higginbotham had pushed Liam Ridgewell when no one else in the ground had seen it. After the game, he appeared on TV to explain his decision. And on ITV’s The Premiership that night, Andy Townsend and Ally McCoist tore into him.
Townsend: Well, I admire him for stepping up to the camera, but I’m not having it for one minute. It was never a penalty.
McCoist: It’s never a penalty. If you start giving penalties for that, you’ll be giving 10 or 15 a game.
And so on.
How things have changed. Last night, Webb was praised by ITV’s commentators and pundits throughout for his performance as Brazil comfortably beat Chile.
Clive Tyldesley also commended linesman Cann for playing an advantage in the build-up to Luis Fabiano’s brilliant second goal. Afterwards, pundit Gareth Southgate told us – not for the first time in the tournament – how Cann had been a trainee with him at Crystal Palace.
This is what it’s like when England aren’t around at a World Cup. During USA ’94, the BBC’s Fantasy Football League show put together a superb compilation of all the various English connections to the tournament – culminating in Tyldesley proudly telling us how Cameroon’s shirts had been made in Huddersfield.
“Oh, I suppose England practically won the tournament, then,” was Frank Skinner’s response.
Us English have to get our consolations where we can, I guess. I should know – I’ve written stories like that myself, even while England were still in the tournament. During the last World Cup, I wrote several articles proclaiming the fact that Angola’s fitness coach lived in Rochdale. (He was Australian, though.)
And Webb deserved praise from Tyldesley and Co last night, because he was good. Brazil, though, were better. A Chile side depleted by suspensions helped them by playing a very open style, but Dunga’s team did the rough stuff when required, passed the ball well and finished superbly. Juan’s header for the first was unstoppable, Robinho’s strike for the third lethal.
If Webb gets the final, he may well encounter Brazil again.