Blowing the whistle on Gorleston referee Alf

HAPPY to oblige! After I wrote about long-retired Gorleston referee Norman Burtenshaw, who officiated at the highest level, reader Martin Brookes wrote from Bedford suggesting I should acknowledge in this column another local who was also a top man in the middle: Alf Grey.

No sooner said than done, Martin.

At one time both referees served together on the international panel. Alf Grey, now 76, was involved in football for 44 years, and travelled to 50 countries as an official.

He was at Wembley no fewer than six times. In the FA Cup, he was a linesman – a long-gone title – at the 1976 FA Cup final between Manchester United and Southampton, won by the Saints 1-0; but, seven years later, he was given the prime domestic fixture for an English referee, officiating at the 1983 FA Cup final between Manchester United and Brighton and Hove Albion.

Because the match ended in a surprise 2-2 draw, Grey received the welcome bonus of handling the replay, the trophy going to Old Trafford when Manchester United won 4-0.

In an earlier round he had refereed the Liverpool-Brighton tie, surprisingly won by the visitors who then beat Norwich City 1-0 in the quarter-finals.

“I was, I expect, the only person in Norfolk delighted with the result for, with both local teams (the Canaries and Ipswich) eliminated, I knew I stood a chance of being appointed to referee the FA Cup final, the dream of every referee.”

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That dream was doubly realised, for he did the final and the replay.

Among his other Wembley engagements were refereeing a Charity Shield final between Aston Villa and Tottenham.

In 1983, after that two-match FA Cup final, Alf Grey retired from refereeing but did referee as his final fixture an international in Switzerland between the home country and the charismatic Brazil.

Once retired, he was appointed as a referee assessor on the Football League and later as a match observer on the Premier League and match delegate/referees observer on the European body.

“In the very early days the job on UEFA was an ‘all expenses paid’ trip to a nice place with not much to do, but that soon changed: Now the match delegate is the highest authority outside the pitch, responsible not only for chairing the organisation morning meeting on match days but also facing up to any sort of problems and to ensure the match officials are being properly taken of.

“The delegate also has to be prepared to intervene if there is any type of security problem, trouble with the spectators, problems with the teams’ delegations or in the media field. It has these days become a very demanding job.”

After the game the delegate has to submit detailed reports to UEFA covering everything – red cards, yellow cards, incidents on the field, security problems, fair-play assessment scheme, spectator disturbances etc. He is also responsible for ensuring that dope-test procedures are carried out correctly.

Of the hundreds of matches at which he officiated, one of his clearest recollections is of his admitted most controversial fixture, Blyth Spartans v Wrexham in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1978: “If Blyth had won they would have gone into the record books as the only non-league club to go into the sixth round and a tie against Arsenal.

“I am still remembered for awarding Wrexham a corner kick (that they say was not a corner) that led to an equalising goal in the dying minutes for Wrexham.”

That contentious goal is recalled on the website of the club: “The non-leaguers of Blyth (near Newcastle) captured hearts and minds of FA Cup romantics when they reached the fifth round and even took their place in the quarter-final draw, to face Arsenal at home. They would have kept that appointment, too, had it not been for an incident that is writ large in Cup legend.

“Leading 1-0 at Wrexham in the final minute, a contentious corner was awarded to the home side. The corner was caught by Blyth ‘keeper Dave Clark but, because the corner flag had fallen down, referee Alf Grey ordered it to be re-taken. Wrexham equalised.

“The replay at St James’ Park, Newcastle, drew an astonishing crowd of 42,000 with an estimated 10,000 more locked out. Blyth lost 2-1 but their players had assured themselves of a place in history.”

Mr Grey brackets referees in three groups: sergeant-major, showman, and “keep-calm”, a category in which he numbered himself.

“I tried not to irritate players by over-anxiety on my part. There was, however, the danger that at times my tolerance would be taken as a sign of weakness, but those who knew me knew I could get tough if the occasion demanded.”

Alf Grey has reminisced: “For as long as I can remember, right from an early age, when I supported my local football team at Burgh Castle, football has been in my blood and it has been there ever since.

“Strangely enough, cricket was my first love and I qualified as a cricket umpire whilst serving in the Royal Air Force in Germany in 1953. It was only when I was told that I had no chance to progress very far in that profession and most certainly not to County Championship level that I turned my intentions to football refereeing...and immediately became one of football’s most unloved ones!

“In those early days I was sufficiently ambitious to tolerate the abuse from local village fans and later – as I progressed to the Football League – sensational journalism, slow-motion television replays, anonymous abusive telephone calls and even bomb threats!

“After eight demanding years’ apprenticeship, I was appointed to the linesmen’s list of the Football League and then to the referees’ list. I soon realised that I could not rest on my laurels for the road down was much quicker than the road to the top, and there were far more critics available to help me on the way down if I should fail.”

He lives in Brasenose Avenue, worked at the Yarmouth and Lowestoft factories of Birds Eye Foods, and plays short tennis with Yarmouth’s Sports Club 88. He is an honorary vice-president of Gorleston FC and “I spend nearly every day up there, helping out.”

With Grey and Burtenshaw on the active Football League list were three other members of the Yarmouth and District Referees Association: referee Rex Spittle and linesmen Jack Ward and Peter Tennant.