In spite of the fact he will turn 77 just 10 days before Russia raises the curtain on its own World Cup against Saudi Arabia, George Courtney MBE bought himself a new referee kit last week.
He confided this news in his local, over a pint of Black Sheep, safe in the knowledge that his fitness regime would soon burn off any calories threatening to increase that kit’s dimensions.
“I have told the wife that the minute I embarrass myself, that’s it, I will finally retire,” he adds, “but I’m enjoying it too much to contemplate that moment for the foreseeable future!”
You can invariably find George every Saturday, during term time, officiating intramural matches between students of Durham University out on the pitches of Maiden Castle on the outskirts of Durham City… although the small matter of a heart attack did interrupt an impressive run of appointments in 2017.
Not for long, mind, and, having pulled off a return not only to regular duty, but to the golf course and two swims a week, he shrugs off such adversity with the humour that has always played a part in a style which accompanied his meteoric rise to the top from refereeing pupils at the school where he first taught in the sixties.
He made the Football League list at 33, having run the line for two years first, and joined the FIFA list at 36, going on to referee matches in two World Cup Finals, plus two Football League Cup Finals (still a unique distinction) and an FA Cup Final that led to a seismic change in the sanction for DOGSO around the world.
“That was my little contribution to football history… but I won’t thank you for reminding me of what was one stinker of a game, ” he jokes of the 1980 show-piece won by a Trevor Brooking header but remembered for Willie Young’s foul on Paul Allen.
So I throw in the 1992 League Cup Final, George’s second, just for the sake of it, a game with the same scoreline as West Ham/Arsenal, yet lacking the redeeming feature of anything but Brian Clough’s last ever stroll out of the hallowed Wembley tunnel.
“Another awful game,” George agrees, but Clough’s playing career permits us to bring George’s joint nearest big clubs, Middlesbrough and Sunderland, into the conversation, one of which offered him a role after he had retired from teaching.
“I was Director of Community Projects at Middlesbrough FC, leaving them in 2004, and those were years that I thoroughly enjoyed while combining it with delegate and instructor roles abroad.
“But I have also enjoyed my other roles within local football, such as being president of the Ebac Northern League. You can tire of the attitudes you encounter from alleged top officials during briefings and the assessor procedure and so on, so I have been lucky to be exposed to the fresher outlook you tend to get among those at the grassroots level.”
When it comes to the current VAR debate, patience is George’s watchword: “Yes, the delays have been embarrassing during the experiments conducted in England so far, but I am convinced they will get it right. We clearly need the technology to reduce mistakes further, but as with any innovation there are bound to be difficulties to get out of the way at first.”
Beyond VAR, George is again forthright in his appraisal of the Select Group landscape: “I do like to keep up, and I really do like the fact there is such good competition between Michael Oliver, whose dad I knew and assessed when he also refereed, and Anthony Taylor.
“OK, people may lament the lack of English referees this summer, and in a way it really is a tragedy, but we all know that is because the best of them all, Mark Clattenburg, took a job in the Middle-East, vacating the place that was his.
“While I see no reason we can’t provide a substitute for Mark, one who could step in over in Russia, I’m optimistic that the future is bright, because Michael and Anthony are two very good young referees indeed.”
So what exactly does George tell youngsters, be they players or budding officials, many of whom will surely only know the governing body, FIFA, as the subject of controversy and corruption? “Well, I don’t usually tell them that my cherished badge ended up sewn on my pyjamas, which it did!
“No, my advice to them is the same as for everyone, regardless of politics: be ambitious, keep your nose clean, train hard and prepare well. It may seem like basic stuff but you just have to watch your back and make sure you can sleep at nights.
“And, I’m glad to say, they do listen to me! Even though success nowadays means you are not having to juggle twin careers like we did, I still feel by and large that you will get out of it what you put in. Treat everyone well, from your assistants to your hosts’ raffle ticket sellers, and you will be more than repaid in camaraderie.
“Of course, myself, I saw a few things, but then I was also privileged enough to travel the whole world at someone else’s expense. Refereeing has given me long-lasting friendships and a marvellous life, full of memories, so I regret nothing. You just have to try not to let any politics cross your mind.
“In 1986, I did have Paraguay versus Mexico and the third-place play-off, but we had more than an inkling that no one else was in the running for the actual final, because FIFA was then led by the Brazilian, Joao Havelange, who was Blatter’s predecessor.
“The Brazilian referee Romualdo Arppi Filho, who liked a drink and a smoke, and was probably the least interested in training out of all of us, told me very early on he did not fancy me to go all the way, and sure enough, he happened to get the final!
“Back then, those selected as referees doubled up as linesmen, and for me that meant getting games in on the line well in advance, and seeing some surprised faces among the supporters at Walsall, York and Rochdale, which kept my feet firmly on the ground!
“The standard now is on a different planet to what I was doing then, it is exceptional, I can promise you, and currently one of the best ARs in the Premier League, I’m glad to say, is another local boy, Gary Beswick, whose natural ability I admire. Having talked to Gary, the way they train, study and prepare really is as professional as you’d like to think it would be.
“I was with two under-19 assistants at the weekend just gone, and one of them had never held a flag before in his life. As the ref I just saw it as my job to make sure he was able to relax and enjoy it, just to make him feel at home as much as I possibly could.”
How did the 1990 tournament in Italy compare with 1986? “I was the oldest at that World Cup by a long, long way, but the experience in Mexico had really made me determined to sample that level again, and the fitness tests held in March were right up my street; I think I came third.
“The Italians already knew me from my European appointments and their match in Rome against Uruguay went well. We would watch the games in camp and there I was, watching the first knock-out round with the Belgian, Marcel Van Langenhove. England, of course, famously won with a David Platt goal, which effectively knocked me out… It had been him or me!”
And how did either tournament compare to officiating the Euro 84 semi-final in Lyon between Spain and Denmark, won by Spain on penalties… it certainly blotted the copybook given that he went on to referee the hosts in 1986 and 1990?
“There was certainly no harder game than that one in my whole career, having drawn the short straw in not getting France, the hosts, versus Portugal. I remember Keith Hackett running the line for me, then congratulating me after on booking my ticket to Mexico, at least in his opinion…
“There were only 12 games to go around in the group stage anyway, and 13 referees, because there were only eight teams competing. Even though it would take me four days to recover from one match in Mexico, this game was also played at a very high temperature and that really took it out of us, but my fitness got me through. It was tough alright, but so rewarding.”
Which seems like as good a way to sum up a career as any. Here’s to many more seasons, George. Cheers.