Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Harper Could Be Whistle-Blower

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Harper Could Be Whistle-Blower

Article excerpt

Byline: By Paul Gilder

For the umpteenth time, the striker was caught at least 10 yards offside. For the umpteenth time, the referee blew his whistle. For the umpteenth time, the offending player disputed the decision and communicated his displeasure in no uncertain terms.

It was Easington in the early 1990s and, as a strong wind whipped in off the North Sea and buffeted those contesting an uninspiring Sunday League fixture on a quagmire of a pitch, it was perhaps as far removed from the glamour of the Premiership as it is possible to get.

It was a scene recalled by Steve Harper this week when he was asked for his thoughts on the current standards of refereeing in top-flight football. The Newcastle goalkeeper was the official in Easington on that cold Autumn morning and, having tasted life on the other side, Harper has been given a useful insight into the issues.

"I did it (refereeing) for a few years and I enjoyed it," said the 31-year-old, whose uncle, Barry Harper, was a renowned local referee who was unfortunate to never make it onto the Football League list. "When I was involved in Sunday League football, I used to go and watch games, and I became involved in it that way. There would be times when you would go to a match and there would be 22 men on a football field but no referee. Everyone would be ready and looking forward to the game and I would end up doing it. People used to say that I did okay and that I should consider taking it up. But then when I became involved in the first-team squad (at Newcastle) I had to give it up, it's just not something you can do."

Had things not worked out for him at St James's Park, Harper might have decided to pursue a career as a referee. He would not have lacked support from a family with a proud tradition to preserve.

"My uncle was a very well thought of local referee who was maybe unlucky not to make the Football League," said a player whose grounding has instilled an appreciation of what appears, at times, to be an impossible job. "He was someone I looked up to and that is why I did it. I didn't have assistants. It was just me in the middle. You would have some 17-year-old kid who is 10 yards offside every time and, every time you give it, he moans at you. It can be a thankless task at times but I wish that more people would get involved because if there is a shortage, it is players and the game that will ultimately suffer."

It is estimated that there are 27,000 referees operating in the domestic game at present but it is not enough and exploring ways in which to increase participation is a perpetual challenge for FA officials.

It is an occupation with an unfortunate reputation, not helped by incidents such as Mike Newell's criticisms of Amy Rayner last year, or the furore that followed Uriah Rennie's decision to allow James Milner's goal against West Ham to stand two weeks ago, even though Scott Parker was in an obvious offside position. …

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