This week saw the launch of The Man In The Middle, Howard Webb’s keenly anticipated autobiography that is already making headlines through its serialisations in the newspapers.
From reffing in the amateur leagues around Rotherham to officiating in a World Cup final Webb’s rise through his profession brought respect and occasionally controversy and his candid tale is a welcome addition to our bookshelves.
We caught up with the book’s co-collaborator Jo Lake to find out more…
How did the collaboration come about?
Howard’s literary agent was looking for a writer to pair him up with and they’d read Paul’s book (in 2011 Jo collaborated with her husband on the well-received I’m Not Really Here) and really liked it. So we met up and got on like a house on fire – which you don’t have to but it helps – and he asked me if I’d like to take a stab at it. That was last November and we started writing it February so it was a fairly tight deadline.
For you personally how did working on The Man In The Middle differ from I’m Not Really Here
Obviously being married to Paul I already had a good knowledge of his career whereas with Howard it was more of a blank piece of paper. I found they are both quite similar personalities which is why I agreed to do it. Howard is so warm and engaging, full of stories with a great attention to detail which is similar to Paul, but for the reffing side of it that required some research.
I approached the books in the same way as before, going through it chronologically then messing around with the structure.
Did you go into the project with any preconceptions on what Howard might be like and how did they change during working together?
Oh absolutely, and when I met him I was so pleasantly surprised because referees have an image on the pitch of being quite dour and serious which they have to be. And yes there were a few issues with Howard with me being a City fan – certain decisions he’s made in the past (laughs)
But he is such an amazing and funny guy and differs so much from his on-pitch image and I wanted that to come across in the book. Changing perceptions is a big part of an autobiography.
I think we all – at some level – recognise how difficult a referee’s job is. After hearing Howard’s side of things how do you view the role?
It is a thankless task in so many ways. You have to be mentally strong and that mental fortitude is needed not just on the pitch – he received death threats in 2008 after the European Championships and needed police protection for his family.
The level of fitness now is so great too – you look at some of the refs in the 60s and they look a world apart from the players – and you need such a dedication to the cause.
Does the book finally lay to rest the long-standing myth that Howard has United leanings?
That was one of my first questions! Yes, absolutely it does. He’s a Rotherham United fan and the book traces that from an early age. The thing with Howard is that he’s so honest and he was more than happy to outline the mistakes that he’s made. They are outweighed by some great decisions but as regards to United he recognises the mistakes that he’s made that led some people to believe that. He thinks the catalyst was when United played Spurs (in 2009). Spurs were 2-0 up at half-time and cruising but Howard gave a penalty and the match turned on that with United winning 5-2.
They went on to win the league and people saw that game as a turning point with Howard making a huge mistake. As a referee you stay away from social media but things still filter through and he would see the doctored pictures of him wearing a United shirt. It got to him because his integrity was being questioned and for a referee integrity is the most important thing.
He is absolutely not a United fan though. It’s ridiculous.
As with any autobiography it’s never simply a case of retelling a person’s life – there is an underlying narrative there, an arc. How would you sum up The Man In The Middle in this context? Is it a success story for example?
I think a lot of it is triumph over adversity. When we was writing the book Howard said at one point ‘right, we need to stop here because this is something that is very much a part of my life but I’ve never spoken about it before’ and it turns out he suffers from quite serious OCD. This is something that has impacted on his life though not necessarily refereeing because when he’s on a pitch that was his refuge. It got into his thoughts and needed something tangible like tapping a table or tapping the floor with his feet. Before a game a bad thought would come into his head so he would have to take his shirt off and put it on again.
It shows you can suffer from something quite debilitating yet still achieve and be successful.
The main thread though is his mental fortitude. The journey from reffing games getting changed in pub car parks to top level refereeing is huge and there are so many obstacles along the way. He navigated those and reached the pinnacle, I mean he reffed the Champions League final and World Cup final in the same year.
The book is highly anticipated yet there might still be potential readers put off by the fact that it concerns a referee and not a player or manager. Why should they give it a read?
Because it is illuminating. When I read a sports biography I want to learn something and found out what that person thinks, to get inside their heads. I think that’s what Howard’s book does. It’s not a chronology of ‘I did this match and then that match’; all of that can be found on Wikipedia or YouTube. It’s an insight into refereeing both on the pitch and off it and it’s told with total honesty. I think people will appreciate that.
What’s your favourite chapter or anecdote or moment in the book?
This has got a City link to it. Howard reffed on that momentous day in May 2012 when City won the league. Howard was refereeing the Sunderland game and throughout the whole match he has people talking down his feed telling him of updates of the match at the Etihad. Knowing this Ryan Giggs runs up to Howard and asks him for the score. Howard tells him Joey Barton has just been sent off and Ryan looks and him and says “F***ing Barton has lost us the title”.
There are lots of insights like that into interaction with players and managers. In fact there’s a funny one involving Tony Pulis…
(Jo then tells us about a glorious mishap involving Howard Webb and West Brom’s manager but if you want to know what it is….buy the book!)
It’s out now in hardbook and published by Simon & Schuster