Graham Poll: Taking the final whistle
PUBLISHED: 16:10 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013
World Cup and Premier League referee Graham Poll has had his share of the limelight - in good times and bad. But now he is enjoying his early retirement at home with his family in Tring, as Kate Fox discovers
'TO be able to go back into the centre circle at Wembley Stadium was brilliant. An hour after the game and the stadium was completely empty. I looked around and it just felt right - it was over.'
Graham Poll's phenomenal 27-year refereeing career ended with the Championship play-off final between Derby County and West Bromwich Albion on May 28, 2007. Just 12 months earlier, the father-of-three had been gearing up for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, having been tipped to take charge of the final. A far cry from the man who made his refereeing debut at Woolmer Green, in the North Herts League when he was just 17.
Back then his mum, Beryl, had to chauffeur him to his matches because he hadn't passed his driving test. 'I'm from a football household in that mum loved football, still does, and my dad was a local park referee. He never aspired to move up in the ranks, just enjoyed refereeing for a few extra quid and to keep fit,' says Graham, who lives in Tring with his wife Julia and their children Gemma, 13, Josie, 11, and Harry, seven.
'Saturday afternoon was always a bit of an adventure when we were kids. Dad would referee the game and we would wander around the villages of Hertfordshire. But as I got a bit older, I occasionally ran the line for him, so I guess it's no surprise that I eventually fell into it. It was never a structured plan, but after three or four games I loved doing it.'
Graham quickly progressed into the Herts County League, but never imagined he would handle some of the toughest games in domestic football involving Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
'It was as early as 1985, I'd only been refereeing for five seasons and I was driving back from a game with my mum. I said to her 'I'm going to referee the FA Cup Final and I'll do it in the Year 2000'. I just plucked a year out of the air and as luck would have it that's what happened.'
As well as his parents, wife Julia helped shape his refereeing career. The pair met in a Berkhamsted pub on Friday, November 10, 1989 - a date etched into Graham's memory as a 'pivotal moment' in his life. While they were dating, he constantly surprised Julia with romantic gestures. One Valentine's Day, Graham - who worked for Oral B at the time - searched three multi-storey car parks in Watford to find Julia's battered old Ford Fiesta. He wrote 'I love you' on the back in toothpaste before leaving an empty tube of toothpaste and a single red rose on her bed. They got married in June 1992.
'I was very successful at work and I was doing very well with my refereeing but I had a bit too much confidence,' confesses Graham. 'Julia was much calmer than me and rounded off those edges. If I got a bit full of myself she would soon slap me down and take the Mickey. But she always supported me and provided my safe haven.'
Graham became a professional referee and established an international reputation as England's top official. He refereed 329 Premier League games, 100 games abroad, a European Championship and two World Cups.
'People used to ask me how I refereed in front of 70,000 people,' says Graham. 'It's just like moving up through the gears. Once you've done 40,000 to move up to 50, 60, 70,000 - it's just a very big crowd. Walking out - that's the moment of the game. When you stand in the tunnel with two teams behind you, knowing that it's on as soon as you go out there. You've got the noise, the atmosphere and the anticipation. The last game I refereed at Wembley had a 56million difference in terms of going up or not going up. That one decision on whether something is a penalty or not makes the difference. You don't think about it at the time. It's just 11 v 11 on a park marked out the same as it was at Woolmer Green.'
During the notorious Australia v Croatia match at the 2006 World Cup, Graham showed Croatian defender Josip Simunic three yellow cards before sending him off. It was a very high profile mistake that saw him return home a shattered man.
'We came off and celebrated, we thought it had gone great. It was the most unreal situation you can imagine,' explains Graham. 'We watched the DVD back. It was painful, especially when the dawning realisation came over us that we'd made a mistake. I'd been working towards refereeing what I describe as the ultimate football match - the World Cup final. It looked like I was destined to do it but for one stupid error, which is inexplicable. I still don't know to this day why it happened but I never refereed that game and that will live with me forever.'
Graham spent the next three days locked in his hotel room, unaware of the huge media fracas surrounding his decision. Reporters laid siege outside the hotel and Graham's home in Tring, desperate for an interview. On June 29, a week on from the incident, Graham appeared on Sky Sports News.
'They'd got their pound of flesh. I was very apologetic, contrite and culpable. It was just a case of piecing it together from a home point of view,' says Graham. 'I got home on the Friday morning and an hour later the phone went - it was David Beckham. He was preparing for the World Cup quarter-final the next day. He said 'It is nothing to do with football, this is just a father talking to another father who is clearly struggling with his family. If there is anything I can do to help you then I will'.
'Whatever you read about David Beckham, he's a really good guy and he's very genuine. In the September I refereed the Real Madrid game against Dynamo Kiev. We chatted like two proud fathers about our sons more than anything. He said I'd done brilliantly to come back, something he'd done in 1998 when he'd got sent off in the World Cup. I'd refereed his first game back in England - the Charity Shield at Wembley between Arsenal and Man United. He'd got dreadful abuse that day and he'd remembered that I'd encouraged him to ignore the abuse and not to react to it. That's why we had a bit of a connection.'
Despite his obvious pain and paranoia, Graham's wife persuaded him to attend a music concert at Tring School the following day. Graham was overwhelmed when the community rallied round him with support. 'It's a great place to live and a lovely place to bring up children. It's just a place where you can be a normal ordinary person, I'm just Graham, I'm Julia's husband, Gemma, Josie and Harry's dad and that's what I like about it.'
Graham retired from top level refereeing in the summer of 2007. His autobiography Seeing Red sold more copies during its official launch at Corbetts Book Shop in Tring than at the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows book launch.
He now writes a column for the Daily Mail and is a regular guest on BBC Radio 5 Live's Saturday morning show with Eamonn Holmes. He also fundraises
for the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home, in Tring.
'My retirement came about by circumstances but I look back at it with no regrets. I can honestly say I have not missed it for a single second. That part of my life was great but it's over, it's time now to get on with something else. I don't know where my new career will take me, but one thing I'm absolutely sure of is that it will be a success.'
Taken from the January issue of Hertfordshire Life