Howard Wilkinson has such a serious CV it has been known to blind some who encounter him to his less serious side.
That’s not to say, however, that the formidable glare he perfected down the years for the most gormless of journalists is in anything but full working order. Even on the phone.
Alex Griffiths engaged Sgt Wilko, as he was known to his Leeds admirers, in a conversation spanning a call for increased educational resources, Respect, the Youdan Trophy and nodding off during a match, among other things.
The former England caretaker, under-21, England C, Wednesday, Leeds, Notts County and Sunderland boss remains as keen as he ever was that the barriers between referees and clubs are addressed and overcome.
Your career not only straddled the birth of the Premier League, the very season after your Leeds side were crowned First Division champions in fact, but also the switch from amateur to professional top-flight referees. Did this have the desired effect?
Overall it has had the desired effect, yes, when you weigh our judgement against the backdrop of such dramatic changes in the game. Players are that much fitter, stronger and more professional.
They handle longer distances at optimum speed and cover so much more ground that what they do demands so much more of those in charge of them.
Now that video technology has been introduced, do you want limits to its use or should experiments continue, the like of which were conducted in the Netherlands?
We must keep pushing the boundaries and we must not be diverted by the argument that we are leaving football at lower levels behind. Anyone arguing that way must see that there have been huge differences for a long time and the referee in particular should not be averse to these changes.
Anything that might improve the product should be looked at, as we are rather euphemistically told that we are in the entertainment industry, while the stakes have only got higher and higher.
Given the potential resuscitation of the Respect campaign, the lot of the park referee shows no obvious prospect of improving, quite apart from any perceived lag when compared to the world of Hawkeye and what have you…
As someone who does watch football at all levels, you do have to say that’s life, I’m afraid, and believe me, I do see the dog’s abuse meted out to young amateurs locally when what they are doing is entirely admirable.
Still, it doesn’t actually matter what they are signing up for and what they think when they start out, because as you move up through the system you simply have to keep up with whatever improvements come along. Things change and if you want the benefits of change you have no choice but to buy into it.
I would compare the journey, at least in some instances, to that of a St John volunteer going on to become a fully-qualified doctor later in life.
Nobody gets to the Elite Panel without working their way up a pretty lonely road and showing a rare passion and commitment to the game, which is to be applauded in my view.
Let’s bring in the League Managers Association (LMA), which has taken up so much of your time besides FA advisory work and boardroom chores since you left full-time management in 2004. What do you, as a body, do to address the sense of ‘them and us’ between managers and referees?
We don’t think about it in those terms, we are only in favour of breaking down barriers and the only way to keep trying to do that is to make sure both sides understand the problems that the other side has got.
From the LMA point of view, it’s all a question of moving forward and we welcome anything aimed at doing just that.
Personally I would also advocate more money being spent on referee development and education, there’s plenty of room for that given the resources currently available in our game.
Our inclination is always toward the ‘we’ rather than ‘them and us’, with the ‘we’ including everybody within football. We have seen improvements where scapegoating of referees is concerned and these improvements will continue.
Surely it’s easier said than done sometimes, when, as a manager, there is so much pressure in the immediate aftermath of a game and so many people only too happy to put words in your mouth?
Yes, there are times when it is in the interests of certain groups to see unrest between managers and referees, but that does not mean we have to subscribe to that agenda.
Have you tried refereeing yourself?
Yes, I always, always refereed in training matches. Not only that, but I frequently refereed very badly, and frequently on purpose! If one of the things you want to develop is a resistance to losing control, then you must practice it.
Did any of your players ever actually make you feel sorry for the referee?
There is no need to name anyone, but there are always going to be those who are slower than others to learn life’s lessons! I would demand of my players that they focus on their own job and no one else’s in order to increase the likelihood of our succeeding. That’s the ideal scenario.
Naturally some would stray, while some would even break out and go on the rampage so to speak, but I’m glad to say that the latter were certainly in the minority.
What do you make of the annual Youdan Trophy, which brings in young referees from abroad and exposes them to our game, and the support they receive from former top officials?
I have attended this tournament and I think it’s good. If our aim is to improve, then we should go ahead and do things like this, then review it and find the value in it. Anything which has at its heart the improvement of referees in particular and the welfare of our game in general has my support.
As Wikipedia sceptics, we thought here’s a good chance, should there be anything out there online or otherwise that’s incorrect, for you to put the record straight?
I’m pleased to report that I’m in reasonable control of my faculties and not in any particular need to check the facts of my own life, so I haven’t looked! An approach from Arsenal which was turned down by the Leeds chairman, Leslie Silver, was a matter of public record, it came when I wasn’t prepared to break my contract, and is there something about Manchester City on there, too?
Yes, there is, and it implies Frank Clark pinched that job from under your nose!
Well, while I wouldn’t put it like that, it was a case of the authority of [former chairman] Francis Lee being superseded by the incoming David Bernstein, whose choice was Frank. I’ll be sure to go back to Wikipedia just as soon as I need to find out anything I may have forgotten, though…
Finally, your old sparring partner, Fergie, once confessed to falling asleep while overdoing the televised
football. Without naming and shaming any clubs in particular, has this ever applied to you, too?
I have indeed, and we should be very careful not to saturate the television market. I’m a believer in that old business principle that Burberry, for one, used to adhere to, which was that when you have a product that is popular, then that popularity is enhanced by a judicious look at what is available.
I find it applies just as well in this case, and there is something to be said for maintaining a deliberate policy of limiting the availability of live football, because there is the very real danger of us over-egging it.