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Football: Dowd sees the light as the man in black

Independent, The (London),  Aug 16, 2001  by Phil Shaw

ONLY THE most masochistic or militant ex-miner recalls the great pit strike of the 1980s with any great affection. However, but for the battle of wills between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, Phil Dowd would probably not be joining Ruud van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Giovanni van Bronckhorst in limbering up for his Premiership debut.

Until this month, the 38-year-old Dowd was a full-time sales executive for a firm of steel stockholders and part-time referee in the Nationwide League. Today he is a member of the first-ever elite corps of 24 professional whistlers who will officiate at the highest level of the English game. And, bizarrely, his new career had its origins 17 years ago in the long, bitter stand-off in which his union became embroiled during his days digging coal.

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Dowd was working at Holditch Colliery in his native Stoke-on- Trent when he was called out. As the combination of picket-line tedium and severely reduced spending power kicked in, he noticed the Hanley & District Sunday League were advertising for new referees. They sponsored him to the tune of pounds 10 to take a course; it was "something to do". While it was also "absolutely nerve-racking" at first, he was soon supplementing his meagre strike pay with slim pickings from policing the budding Alan Hudsons and Robbie Earles in the parks.

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Not that refereeing has ever been about money for Dowd, delighted though he is to be being paid a pounds 33,000 retainer plus pounds 500 per fixture by the new Professional Game Match Officials Board. Despite an eventful outing in the First Division at Sheffield Wednesday last Sunday, when a pitch invasion followed his decision to allow Burnley to re-take a penalty, he remains thrilled simply to be involved in the game.

"Take me away from football," he says, "and you may as well take me away from life. I've always been the same. Every spare minute I'd be watching, either at Knypersley Vics, near where we lived, or Port Vale, my closest League club. Or playing left-back in junior football in the Leek League."

Inevitably, there have been moments of self-doubt and frustration. The worst came early, in a Social Services match at Keele. "They gave me terrible stick," he remembers. "I booked this lad for foul and abusive language and he denied it. Reckoned he was a Sunday School teacher! I drove home on the bike I had then and threw my bag down in the hall. I said: `That's it'. Fortunately my family encouraged me to keep going."

Dowd reached the Premier League line in the mid-1990s. Highlights of his flagging career included Niall Quinn, who had been substituted, brushing past him to yell to the Manchester City colleague who was time-wasting that a draw with Liverpool would not, after all, be enough to avert relegation.

He then had three seasons in the middle himself in the lower divisions and felt he improved with experience. Others clearly reached the same conclusion. This summer he received a call asking whether he was interested in being a professional pioneer. "I was painting when they rang and I thought: `Am I hearing this?' I was in shock. But it took me all of a milli-second to say yes. It's what I've always wanted to do."

The refereeing revolution is intended, over time, to iron out quirks in the interpretation of the laws. The select band will meet weekly to pool ideas and experiences, and to study videotape of contentious incidents. "We're striving for consistency," explains Dowd. "But we're all different, just as you never get two centre- forwards who are identical. Things should improve once we start meeting up. It's like a squad of players; we'll work together and help each other through." His own individuality manifests itself in banter with players, one of whom characterises him as being "like Robbie Williams' big brother". "I talk too much sometimes, but I like to establish a rapport," he concedes, echoing one early role model, the compulsive communicator Roger Milford.

Dowd and co will also train together regularly and have their fitness tested six times a year. "I began my preparations for the season by working on getting my weight down," he adds, mindful of the Board's intention to measure body fat. Patting a stomach that would be rated anorexic in the journalistic world, he adds: "First I was running on my own at night, after work. Then I started toning up in the gym. If a player's not in shape, he isn't picked. It'll be the same for us."

The new regime should also promote better preparation. Dowd cites a drive to Ipswich when he left work at lunchtime, having had to take half a day's holiday, and was back in the office by 7am, four hours after hitting the sack. Now, again like the players, he will be able to rest in a hotel.

Nevertheless, he warns, it would be folly to expect an overnight improvement in refereeing standards. One of the few certainties about the big kick- off is that someone, somewhere make a controversial decision which will have managers and players, television pundits and phone-in callers alike waxing indignant about professional incompetence.