There was one moment where George Courtney let it all sink in. Mexico were playing Paraguay in front of a 115,000-strong crowd at the 1986 World Cup, and Courtney was in charge. He was, however, completely focused on the task at hand.
“Standing at the top of the refereeing world, standing at the Azteca at 12 o’clock kick-off, and you’re thinking ‘My god, I’m here, but in the next 90 minutes or so I’ve got to work so hard.’”
It is a far cry from Maiden Castle, where the Spennymoor-born referee now takes charge of college games most weekends. Despite having refereed at two World Cups, the European Championships and an FA Cup final, there is still something which draws him to it.
“What I love about refereeing at college level is the sheer enthusiasm and joy of most of the players that play, it’s great,” he tells me.
“And the way they treat the match referee, I think, is excellent. I’ve got no complaints at all, and if I need to put a sharp voice on I will, if I need to administer a good warning I will, but in the main, I look forward to that repartee between students and myself.
“I can’t recall a game in the colleges where there’s been any bad feelings… I still look forward to refereeing every Saturday, even at my age.”
We meet in a busy pub in Durham, but Courtney kindly turns down a drink. Famed for his fitness as a referee – he thinks he only missed one game in 20 years at the top level – he remains in excellent shape. He is a keen tennis player, golfer and walker. Even a heart attack earlier this year could not stop him; he was given the green light to referee again last month.
Some 25 years have passed since Courtney retired from the top level, but he insists that “I’m still in as love with the game as I was 50 years ago”, although he admits “I don’t quite run as quickly as I used to”.
That passion for refereeing and football in general is clear throughout our conversation, and Courtney recalls how he used to play on a Saturday and referee on a Sunday at the start of his career.
Off the pitch, he commanded just as much respect as a headmaster in County Durham. Having qualified as a teacher, he took up his first role in West Cornforth, a village 20 minutes south of Durham, in 1961. As the “youngest and fittest of the teaching staff”, he coached football, and soon found himself refereeing inter-school games.
His rise was impressive, qualifying for the Durham FA a year later and alternating between refereeing and running the line throughout the 1960s from local to regional level. It took him nine years to make it to the Football League as a linesman, and a further two as a referee.
He was given eight games to prove himself on a supplementary list, and he emphasises how difficult the competition was.
“What readers have got to realise is the amount of work one has to put in to achieve any degree of success. Refereeing is very, very competitive. [It] always has been, always will be, dog-eat-dog, and I was always a competitive animal.”
When he made his First Division debut in 1975 after reaching the full list, it was the result of “14 years of hard work” for Courtney. Leeds won 4-0 against Leicester City at Elland Road, and he was given the match ball afterwards.
But his big break came at Molineux at the end of the 1975-76 season. Wolves and Liverpool both needed a win for different reasons – Wolves needed three points and a loss from Birmingham City to avoid relegation, Liverpool just one point to win the title.
“This young referee from Spennymoor was asked to referee, and I knew if I did well in that game then the whole world would open up.
“Wolves scored first in front of 54,000 people, Liverpool equalised through Tommy Smith and they went ahead with Kevin Keegan, John Toshack – famous names in those days. It was one of those games, and it’s true in life, if you’re in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, things went well.”
Courtney was right, and a year later he was made a FIFA referee at 36. These days he warms up in a smart blue tracksuit top with the FIFA initials on the back.
He sees himself as a proactive referee who “worked hard to prevent trouble” through body language and talking to players. He laments the fact “the game has lost a huge sense of humour”, and argues that Premier League officials will automatically turn to a yellow card for many incidents.
“I used to do all my work off the ball in a preventative manner, it was preventative refereeing. Now it’s much more confrontational, and I regret the fact that the humour’s gone from the game at the very top level, which is such a shame.
“You watch Match of the Day or you watch your live Premier League games, there’s no rapport between the match officials and the players.”
There are a few Premier League officials he admires, such as Martin Atkinson (“a steady referee”) and Michael Oliver, but, he says, “The best referee we’ve lost, Mark Clattenburg. He’s earning big money in Saudi Arabia as Director of the Referees. He was outstanding.”
He does fear for the future of refereeing in England, however.
“I do worry about the quality of the match officials coming through currently, and I’ve got to draw the parallel with the fact that I went into the game because I loved it. Now referees are going into the game because of money and financial reasons, which I can accept to a certain extent. But to me, there doesn’t seem to be the level of top-class competition for places at the top table.”
In four years of refereeing at college level, he has handed out one yellow card – “And that was for a really bad challenge by a goalkeeper on an opponent where I couldn’t ignore it at all”. He says officials have to work hard to earn players’ respect, but that players must do the same with referees.
Even so, he was left with no choice in the 1980 FA Cup final when Arsenal’s Willie Young scythed down Paul Allen as the West Ham striker went through on goal. Courtney brandished a yellow card, in keeping with the laws at the time, but the incident sparked a national debate on the ‘professional foul’.
“As Paul Allen’s going through, the big, lumbering centre-half of Arsenal, Willie Young, who I’ve never heard of since, he took Paul out, but the interpretation in those days was a caution, a yellow card.
“It initiated a big, big debate on the professional foul, in other words, the denying of an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
“It was 37 years ago, and I can still picture it – it’s how far out Paul Allen was from a goalscoring opportunity. But the interpretation then was a yellow card. Now Jimmy Hill, of Match of the Day fame, he started the discussion, and I think a year or two years later, in exactly the same incident, same scenario, that offender would be sent off.”
Again, he was in the right place at the right time. By applying the laws of the game, he had inadvertently inscribed his name in the sport’s history. That foul was symptomatic of the rest of the final, which West Ham edged 1-0.
“The quality of the game was poor, it really was. It was a very hot May day, and the old Wembley… always had a suffocating atmosphere, so the players never played to their full potential. West Ham were the underdogs. It was a poor game, mainly because of the high temperatures and the humidity.”
But he has fond memories of the day, and of the old Wembley stadium in general, which he calls “the cathedral of refereeing”.
“I’ve got a lovely photograph at home of the twin towers, and the framed photograph is signed by my assistants… Wembley was always special to me.”
Courtney describes himself as a “people person”, and it is easy to warm to him. Midway through our discussion, a stranger mistakes him for Pat Partridge, another former World Cup referee who died in 2014, but Courtney merely smiles and tells him to take care.
Later, he spots his friend and former FA Cup-winning Sunderland midfielder Micky Horswill across the bar and calls him over. They talk about the state of the north-east club and whether the newly-appointed Chris Coleman can turn things around.
He emphasises the importance of engaging others, particularly his fellow officials.
“I always found, when I went to the games, that if I treated people properly, they treated me in return properly.
“I always made a little note of [the linesmen’s] names, because they were strangers in a sense. If I was refereeing, say, at Liverpool, I might get a guy from Wolverhampton who I’d never met, I might get a guy from Lincoln I’d never met. I always made a note of their names and when the next bulletin of appointments came through and they were with me, I’d do my homework, and then when I greeted them… they would die for you.”
In 1982, he was told he would go to the World Cup in Spain, only to miss out. He refereed the Euro 1984 semi-final between Spain and Denmark – “Probably the most difficult match I’ve ever refereed in my life” – but he was all the more determined to make it to Mexico in 1986.
He admits, however, that “I never thought in 1961 I would referee a World Cup game in 1986, it was all about that work that went on.” As he points out, his work was far from over when he made it to the Estadio Azteca.
“I remember doing Mexico-Paraguay, one of the first games at the World Cup in front of 115,000 people, in front of a worldwide audience of something approaching a billion people, and at the anthems, you’re aware of that. But once the game starts, you are wrapped up in a total concentration.
“At the end of that Mexico-Paraguay game, I was absolutely exhausted. I think I lost, in 90 minutes, about eight pounds of weight, and it took me about four days to recover.”
He remembers the challenges of refereeing with a language barrier and the camaraderie between the officials. But he also recalls the Brazilian referee Romualdo Arppi Filho telling him early in the tournament he would not take charge of the final. Filho “happened to referee the final” between West Germany and Argentina.
Instead, he got the third-place match between Belgium and France, the “crumbs off the table”. It was Michel Platini’s last game for France, and the French won 4-2 after extra time.
He nearly made it to the final four years later in Italy, but he fell short for different reasons this time.
“England stopped me then because I think I might have had a chance of the final. But I always remember, I watched the England-Belgium game [in the round of 16], and if Belgium had gone through, I would have stayed in the World Cup.
“So I was sat with the Belgian referee [Marcel Van Langenhove], and David Platt got the winning goal, and the next day I was on my way home. It was as brutal as that.”
He refereed two European club finals and became the only official to be honoured twice with the appointment of the League Cup final in 1992, but it was his final professional game which perhaps proved to be the most significant.
If there is a match which demonstrates that Courtney’s career is bound up with history, it is the 1992 Division Two play-off final between Blackburn and Leicester at Wembley, in which both teams were vying for a place in the new Premier League. Courtney awarded the penalty which Mike Newell converted to win Blackburn the game and the Lancashire club went up. Three years later, they were Premier League champions.
Courtney was awarded the MBE for services to football, though he does not boast about it. He says meeting the Queen was “absolutely amazing”, but the gong itself is “tucked away somewhere” with his FA Cup medal.
So, how would he like to be remembered?
“Honest and fair, simple as that… and I think I was.
“It’s all part of this respect syndrome with players, whether it’s your Maradonas, or your Gascoignes, or your Peter Beardsleys, or your Kenny Dalglishes; or, your college boys and girls.
“The way I’d like to die is when I’m blowing the final whistle in the centre circle. That’s the way I’d like to go.”
I ask one last, open-ended question. What does refereeing mean to him?
“Everything. It means everything. It’s created a really good and rewarding life for me which continues today, and I still boil my whistle before every game.
“It’s meant everything for 50-something years, it still does. But the first time I embarrass myself, [I’m] finished. Then I’ll concentrate on my golf handicap.”
1941 Born in Spennymoor, County Durham
1974 Makes Football League list aged 33
1975 Makes First Division debut: Leeds (4) Leicester (0)
1977 Becomes a FIFA-qualified referee
1980 Referees FA Cup final: Arsenal (0) West Ham (1)
1984 Referees Euro 84 semi-final in Lyon: Spain (6) Denmark (5) on penalties
1986 Referees two games at World Cup in Mexico, including third-place match, France (4) Belgium (2) a.e.t.
1990 Referees two games at World Cup in Italy
1992 Referees League Cup final for second time in career: Manchester United (1) Nottingham Forest (0)
1992 Retires after Division Two play-off final: Blackburn (1) Leicester (0)
Photograph: Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero