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Howard Webb retires a celebrity, thanks to all of you

Leading Premier League referee Howard Webb has retired, moving on to a training and management role with PGMOL. And despite nobody wanting Howard Webb to be a big deal, he's one regardless.

Mike Hewitt

Wednesday has brought surprising news: not-anymore-Premier-League-referee Howard Webb has announced his retirement. This announcement took the rather unusual form of a news release direct from the league itself, which stated, bombastically:

Howard Webb MBE has been appointed Technical Director of Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL). In taking up the newly created position brings to an end his distinguished 25-year refereeing career.


Additionally Webb will take a public-facing role, informing and educating on refereeing matters. Webb will report to PGMOL General Manager Mike Riley and joins his management team.

Leaving aside the fact that PGMOL sounds like it should be a mythical (but evil) Norse warhammer, it's probably time to reflect on how we got to this point. A referee's retirement was, in the good old days, not sufficient incitement for the league's public relations division to extrude a news release. It certainly wouldn't have included quotes like this:

I am very excited to start this new chapter in my career after a wonderfully rewarding 25 years on the pitch. I have spent over a decade with the best seat in the house for Barclays Premier League matches, been lucky enough to be involved in nine UEFA and FIFA tournaments, and taken charge of the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup finals.

But obviously they do now. This is the brave new celebritised world in which we inhabit, and not many people are very pleased with it. But those complaining about the fanfare to which Webb is retiring (the same fanfare in which he's done everything lately, in truth), are missing a few salient points.

The first is that this role as the right arm to Fafner as the jötnar attempt to storm Asgard PGMOL technical director seems to be a fairly important and novel one. It's worthy, at least, of being talked about, and it's only natural that they talk to the person who's actually getting the job. Webb is going to overseeing the performance of current referees and managing the training structures that produce new ones, and in this position he can be a serious boon to English football.

The second is that Howard Webb isn't just any referee. He was, rather, the Premier League's best, which is why he's ended up with his new position after retirement. Certainly, he had flaws and made mistakes — boy, did he make mistakes — but he's also been, for a good deal of time, the country's most consistent referee. More Webbs, despite the humour that can be had at his expense, would probably be a good thing.

And the third trumps the lot: Webb isn't a celebrity because he wants to be. Since the advent of the Premier League, mega-television deals and the realisation that the public literally cannot consume enough sports content, football has permeated every aspect of popular culture. And referees are, obviously, required in order to play football. Place a man at centre stage, force him to sink or swim in high pressure situations, crucify him, in public for mistakes, reduce him to memes, and it's not surprise when the news of his retirement comes in grand fashion.

Howard Webb has spent the last few years on our televisions, his name constantly warbled out by equally celebritised pundits. He's done a better job controlling the game than, in general, those calling it. He's been less profoundly incompetent than many of the players he's overseen. He's been a figure of fun and a target for absurd rage more times than he can probably count. All of this makes him relevant to pretty much everyone with a marginal interest in the Premier League.

They say, of course, that the best compliment you can give a referee is that nobody noticed him during a match. This is obviously nonsense, like many of the things that they say, because in that case we wouldn't bother with referees at all. The job of the referee is to be consistent in the way they apply the rules of the game, to keep the spectacle up without favouring or endangering one side or another. Webb fell somewhat short of our ideal referee, but the fact that we know his name is hardly a failing.

Referees can't be stars. But they'll always be relevant, and the more popular and all-consuming football becomes, the more we'll hear about them. Best get used to it.