EDDIE Wolstenholme will take his seat in the stands at Wembley tomorrow, fondly remembering what he still regards as the highlight of his working life.
Two games leap out from Wolstenholme’s refereeing career, which spanned close to 30 years.
One was the Battle of Bramall Lane, remembered for the wrong reasons after the Blackburn referee had no choice but to abandon a second tier fixture between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion after the Blades ended up with only six men.
The other was the First Division play-off final in 1998. Charlton 4 Sunderland 4, with Michael Gray’s miss in the shoot-out seeing Charlton claim promotion to the Premier League on penalties.
Tomorrow Sunderland return to Wembley for the first time since that day, for the League Cup final against Manchester City.
Wolstenholme will be present, in his role as a referees’ chief at the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited).
“The Charlton-Sunderland play-off final is the game that stands out for me,” Wolstenholme said.
“That was probably the best game I ever refereed, not because of me personally but the game itself. It was perfect because nobody even mentioned me.
“It’s the most I’ve ever concentrated because you just do not want to make a mistake.
“But the nice thing about it was as I was walking down the tunnel at the end Kevin Ball, the captain of Sunderland, stopped me and asked me to do his testimonial, even though they’d just been beaten on penalties.
“I did the first game at the Stadium of Light too and my last game was as a fourth official at Sunderland.
“It was where I wanted to finish.”
Just as Wolstenholme was happy he had done the job asked of him that day at Wembley, so too he remains content that he did the right thing at Bramall Lane on an afternoon that hit the national headlines in 2002.
Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United had Simon Tracey, Georges Santos and Patrick Suffo sent off before Michael Brown and Rob Ullathorne limped off injured.
Promotion-chasing West Bromwich Albion were 3-0 up but regulations meant Wolstenholme had to abandon the game as soon as one side only had six players on the field.
“At the time the game was one of the easiest because what happened was taken out of my control,” he said.
“I didn’t have any choice with the red cards. Any referee would have done the same.
“I tried my best to finish the game because I could have sent Michael Brown off for a second yellow card, but I kept him on and then he went off injured.
“Then the last one I told him that you do realise I’m going to have to abandon the game if you go off.
“But he said he was too injured and went off.
“By 6pm I had a national newspaper on to me.
“I got offered quite a sum of money from one paper to do a two-page spread the following week.
“I was getting silly phone calls until 2am for two or three days.
“But I just said no comment, it wasn’t right to say anything until the FA had dealt with it.
“The week after I did a game at Sheffield Wednesday, and it was the first time I’d been applauded on to the pitch as a referee!”
Wolstenholme became a referee after injury curtailed his non-league playing career with Walton-le-Dale, now known as Bamber Bridge, at the age of 22.
By the late 1980s he had progressed to become a linesman on the Football League list, before joining the referees’ list at the same level in 1992. In 2001, two years before the then mandatory retirement age of 50 for referees, he gave up his job as an engineering fitter with GEC Alsthom to turn full time.
Wolstenholme is among the disciplinary panel who review controversial incidents missed by referees, deciding whether the player involved should be charged by the FA. He is more cautious on that particular subject, perhaps wary that the recent decision not to charge Manchester City’s Yaya Toure for kicking out at Norwich’s Ricky van Wolfswinkel did attract some attention.
“We’ve only had six incidents this year and nobody knows what the others have voted, which I think is right,” he said.
“It’s got to be unanimous, 3-0, for the player to be charged. We do that from home, they send you the link and the three on the panel are Alan Wiley, Steve Dunn and myself.
“Up until July I worked for eight years for the Lancashire FA as referees’ development manager.
“Now I coach first and second year Football League referees, which I really enjoy.
“We’ve got quite a good relationship with managers too. When we have the referees’ meetings, some them come along. Keith Hill, Lee Johnson, Gary Bowyer and Sean Dyche all came a few weeks ago.”
There is still a perception of refereeing as a daunting job.
Wolstenholme believes the situation is better than it appears.
“I found it easier to referee in front of a bigger crowd because it’s a volume of noise,” he said.
“When you referee at small grounds, you hear every bit of abuse.
“I actually think the hardest play to referee is local parks, especially refereeing young kids with their parents.
“But I think officials get more support now than they’ve ever had and in Lancashire we have been increasing the numbers. In 2002 we had 1,300 referees, now it’s 2,000.
“To be involved in football at the top level is great. I’m grateful for what I’ve had out of football.”