The Oldest Referee


The Manchester Accountants League plays Sunday football at Hough End Playing Fields, a vast grid of twenty or so muddy, bumpy pitches in a park in Withington. A few years ago I played for a newly-formed pub team based at the Rising Sun, just off Deansgate. Other teams in the league included Maccabi, a Jewish team, Mesopotamians, all players from Iraq, and, a division above us, Village Manchester, relatively famous for their success in IGLFA World Championships. The ‘accountants’ bit of the name is an anachronism. The football, at least when I played, was more agricultural than actuarial.

One of the referees of the league’s matches was remarkably advanced in years — we didn’t know how old but guessed he could’ve been eighty. He was good-humoured but dead serious about his work, tall and spindly. He hardly moved on the pitch, staying in the centre circle to watch the game from there and only mobilising for important events like corners.

I never understood why anyone would want to get up on Sunday mornings to take verbal abuse from twenty-two angry, hungover Mancunians who think they’re better at football than they are. Me included. The pay was a token £25 for two hours work and travel. Some people obviously love the game enough though, including this old feller still standing out in the rain and wind when he could reasonably have been at home doing crosswords.

We thought he was funny, and respect for his age meant he didn’t seem to get as much abuse as the other officials. This despite the fact that he seemed to have quite unique ideas on how the game should be adjudicated. I remember one game of ours he was doing when two players went into a tackle and the ball went out off their man for a throw-in. Both players claimed it, he gave it to the opposition and our player made a comment he didn’t like. As punishment, to everyone’s bemusement, he upgraded the award to a direct freekick on the edge of our area. I was near him and said ‘Listen, you can’t just turn throw-ins into freekicks. That’s not a rule.’ He replied ‘There are no rules in football, just laws, and I’m the judge and executioner.’ Well, what do you say to that.

I only played for that team for one season as I got fed up of having my knees hacked at by lumbering defenders who preferred that approach over chasing after me. A few months after I’d stopped playing, I turned on the sports news one morning to see the old guy there on the screen. Mr Thomas ‘Tommy’ Clarke was, they said, the oldest FA referee in the country, at 86. In the entire league pyramid, from Manchester Accountants Division Two to the Premier League, the oldest.

Another funny decision Tommy Clarke made went our way. After the other team took a corner the ball broke and a teammate of mine, Chris, set off on a counterattack, dribbling into their half. I caught up alongside him and just as he went to slide the ball to me, a defender took him down from behind. It was a hilariously filthy foul. He was, I considered, the last defender and should’ve been sent off. The referee blew a distant whistle and, when he finally made it up to our end of the pitch, pointed to the penalty spot. Their defenders were outraged. The thing was, the foul wasn’t in the penalty area. Chris’s forward momentum hadn’t even carried him into the D, as was obvious from the long furrow he’d made through the mud after being felled. It stopped about 25 yards from goal. After wailing at the ref, the defenders turned on us, telling us to own up: that it was outside the box and we knew it. We were laughing too hard even if we wanted to tell him, which we didn’t. We told them where to go. We hadn’t won a game in the league yet, we were having that. The penalty levelled the match.

I looked up the oldest referee to see if he was still out on Hough End on Sunday mornings. Turns out not. He retired the following season, blowing his last whistle at the age of 87, and died a couple of years later in 2009. His death was reported in the Manchester Evening News, who claimed that Mr Clarke was in fact the oldest referee in the world. I don’t know how you’d check that. But either way he’d apparently been refereeing games since 1948, which is amazing. It even quoted the exact words he said to me after that freekick decision, wisdom he apparently gave out often.

Thinking again about the penalty, perhaps Tommy Clarke knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe he’d seen the whole thing and just pretended to have been too far away. It says in that report that he’d only brandished four red cards in his whole career. Maybe he didn’t want to send the lad off but decided a penalty was sufficient punishment for a goal-preventing foul. Not in the rules, but a reasonably fair outcome if you think about it. ‘There are no rules in football, just laws, and I’m the judge…’

An honour to have been refereed by you, Mr Clarke. It was definitely our throw.