Howard Webb – From Officer to Whistleblower

There are few jobs in the world where over billion people watch every decision you take and treat them as a matter of national pride. Yet South Yorkshire Police Sergeant Howard Webb, who is known worldwide as the FIFA World Cup 2010 final referee, knows the feeling extremely well.
Webb officiated over his most prestigious game ever in Soccer City, Johannesburg, and used the skills gained as an officer to take charge of a match in which passions ran high and tempers flared among the players on the pitch. But policing was the first passion of Rotherham-based Howard (40), the son of a Yorkshire miner, who had wanted to serve as a youngster and left school in the middle of studying for his A-levels to work until he was old enough to join his local force. It was while the would-be officer was employed at a bank that his father, himself a football referee, inspired his son to don black and take to the pitch. It was not lost on him, officiating at his first ever football match on the fields next to Orgreave Coking Plant, that he had witnessed the clashes on the same fields between police and miners during the bitter strike of the early 1980s. Speaking exclusively to, Howard pointed to the industrial dispute as being one of the key factors which inspired him to become an officer, realising that he had a passion to both serve and keep order. When he achieved his dream 1993 he had already progressed through the FA ranks and had become an assistant referee in the Northern Counties East League. His journey would ultimately take him into the Premiership 10 years later, and onto the international scene in 2005.
“Police officers make good football referees and referees make really good police officers due to the similarities in the qualities needed to do both roles,” said Howard. "Things are happening quickly in front of you – you have to stay calm, analyse lots of information and act decisively but be aware of personal safety and watch your back." Howard recalled that there had been a number of occasions when his football and policing careers had collided. In one memorable instance, he was sat outside a stadium at Sheffield in a prisoner transport van during an FA Cup semi-final – and had asked a passer-by what the match score was. When the man curtly asked why he wanted to know he replied: “It is because I refereed the other semi-final in Liverpool.” In his police uniform Howard had not been recognised despite his distinctive appearance and on-pitch presence.
The pressures of balancing policing and refereeing commitments prompted Howard to later consider his options as he did not want to compromise either role. Having already reduced his policing hours, a colleague on a Safer Neighbourhood Team suggested he considered taking a career break. “I looked into the options and saw that one of the criteria was ‘to pursue sporting ambition’, so I spoke with a senior officer, submitted my request and it was approved,” he recalled. “South Yorkshire Police has been great with me. They allowed me to work part-time for five years and the chief constable also sent me a message of good luck when I left on the five-year break to pursue my refereeing." The conscientious officer felt that he had made the right decision for both policing and for football. “I was finding it hard to juggle both roles and do them justice,” he admitted. “I could be away for up to four days at a time refereeing, I would come back to loads of emails and was always playing catch-up. I had worked hard to get promotion early in my career and so I did not want to risk losing my stripes. I was losing touch and as a supervisor it was my job to be in touch.” Since going full-time as a football referee, Howard has been recognised for his achievements with an MBE for services to football. In addition, he now is the holder of two honorary degrees, most recently from York St. John University.
The pinnacle of Webb’s refereeing career undoubtedly came in July 2010 when he officiated in the World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain. Speaking at the time, South Yorkshire Police’s ACC Andy Holt – the ACPO lead for Football – said: "It's a great achievement and we are delighted for him. He has a good reputation as a sergeant and you can spot some policing traits in the games that he handles. Intervening in heated situations and separating people and calming them down is not too dissimilar to policing on a Friday or Saturday night. He's not afraid to take tough decisions either. He's considered as firm but fair.” Most recently, Howard has been on TV screens again as a referee at the Euro 2012 football finals held in Poland and the Ukraine. He officiated in three matches and was the fourth official for the Germany and Italy semi-final in Warsaw. He was hotly tipped to be the referee for the final this year, but narrowly missed out to the Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca. Had he been selected he would have been the first referee to have taken charge of both the World Cup and Euro Finals. But Howard’s career has seen other moments of drama away from the international football scene. Earlier this year, his skills as a referee and an emergency responder were tested to the full as he refereed the FA Cup match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers. Bolton defender Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch and Howard won acclaim for the clear-headed and professional way he dealt with a life-or-death situation.
So what next for Webb? His career break comes to end within the next 12 months and so decisions will need to be made as to where his future lies – policing or elsewhere. But there is no question at all that he has demonstrated immense passion, commitment, integrity and personal determination over his time as a professional referee. All of these qualities still remain key to policing should he ultimately return to pounding the street he loves in South Yorkshire.

Source: Police Oracle