Alex Griffiths bumped into Sky Sports reporter @GeoffShreeves at the National Football Museum, a man known for celebrity scoops such as Mike Tyson and Kevin Costner. That’s not to say, however, that those numbers of referees in his phone book are not among the most cherished.
Having made the move from producer to operating in front of the cameras some 18 years ago, it’s been 25 years in total at Sky and, while the discretion which has ensured such longevity is predictably present and correct, he’s not exactly shy about identifying what’s not right with the game.
How do you explain the success of your touchline/tunnel reporting style?
I rely on that old scout motto of ‘be prepared’. We have a fantastic stats department at Sky; they come up with an enormous set of information for each and every game. The key from my point of view is not to know all of it, though, it’s to know which are the relevant parts, and when to use those.
Don’t forget, I may talk to managers before and after, plus the players, but the real reason people are watching is for the middle bit, the match itself!
If Klopp has just dropped Mignolet, though, he needs to be asked why. Of course, you need a good overview doing what I do, but it’s a bit like a newspaper reporter thinking on their feet when it comes to a potential re-write.
Say John Terry has won Man of the Match and I’m getting told in my ear by the producer that he and Thibaut Courtois will be with me live in however many minutes and to be ready.
That can still all go out of the window depending on events, and then, while you’re on, people can burst in or even walk out, so it’s a case of expect the unexpected.
What would indeed be unexpected given the current arrangements would be if your producer were to tear up the running order and tell you “we have now got the ref; three, two, one…”
Well we used to talk to referees after games many moons ago, of course, and I’d like to think I’d be just as prepared! It used to be a regular thing, but we ended up doing it less and less.
Are you claiming there was a decision to stop those interviews made by Sky as opposed to anyone else?
Not at all, but the problem was, referees were only getting wheeled out when they had made a mistake, and referees always tell me they are at their happiest when they have gone unnoticed.
You’d be amazed how many times I have had a ref watching a decision on a monitor with me and they have been ecstatic at a correct call confirmed by the replay, it really is just like scoring a hat-trick for them.
Other times they will come off and check with me, and just like a player, their reaction when they have got it right shows how much it means to them.
Ever tried refereeing yourself?
No, but I am a big fan! I’m in touch with all the top referees, I spend a lot of time in their company and I stand up for them on Twitter all the time.
In general I find we lose sight of referees as human beings and the reactions to their genuine mistakes are always so way over the top, we forget that we are all fallible.
In this very conversation I will slip up at some point, and how many passes are misplaced by the players? Yet we fail to show forgiveness or understanding for what a difficult job refereeing is, and you can also add that 99% of the ones I have come across are well worth having a drink with, too!
We have allowed dissent and abuse at unacceptable levels for far too long and I think if anything comes of Ryan Hampson’s threat to strike that would be a good thing, it could be just the wake-up call required.
Any more suggestions to make refs’ lives easier?
They could definitely get more help… because the sheer pace makes it impossible for one man to keep up. The technology has worked well so far, which I would extend, and I am also in favour of retrospective action when it comes to simulation.
But having players in their faces sends out completely the wrong message for me and you do see it copied by school kids. I know it’s a cliché but you only have to look at rugby to see that referees can be treated differently. I’m just not buying the argument that says education or lack of it is a factor here, if that was true how do you explain the respect for discipline in boxing?
It seems like such an all-consuming world, so do you permit yourself a holiday from football, when you are actually supposed to be on holiday?
It is always on, I’ll give you that. However, when I’m off, I’m off, if you know what I mean.
The funny thing is, when you’re away you tend to bump into players anyway, so there can be no escape as such. I have been known to catch a local game, and you keep an eye out, naturally, but you don’t want to defeat the object of getting a break.
How much will football miss the late Graham Taylor?
As we have seen from the recent tributes, Graham really was a lovely guy. I actually had a cameo role in The Impossible Job, the Channel 4 documentary which formed so many negative memories of him, back when I was freelance floor manager, and I remember how difficult it was for him around the time of the San Marino match in particular.
The thing was, Graham never, ever forgot the fact that whoever he was dealing with was also a professional and he always gave them the appropriate respect. Compare for yourself one famous scene from that documentary, the infamous exchange with the fourth official in Rotterdam, with the recent outburst on the touchline from John Sheridan [when Sheridan was still at Notts County].
You can’t very well go singling refs out from the domestic game for obvious reasons, but are there any referees from further afield you feel worthy of a mention?
Yes, I think Cuneyt Cakir, the Turk who took two Champions League semis in 2016, stands out, actually, and I know I’m not alone in singing his praises.
He refereed Fulham on their UEFA Cup run quite a while back and has also taken games at the Euros and the World Cup 2014 semi between Argentina and the Netherlands.
On the subject of international fixtures, has TV coverage led in any way to the decreasing popularity of international football compared to the likes of EPL and Champions League?
I don’t think so. I do think social media has had a hand in that, but the continued lack of success can’t help!
In the old days it was as if life in many countries, not just the home nations, came to a standstill when the national team played. Now you can’t say that there is not still a healthy following for England, for example, but success does at the end of the day breed interest.
Keeping an eye on social media will tell you that, yes, some people are less bothered and don’t forget football is competing with an ever-increasing number of things for attention, but I’m pretty sure you can’t blame that on TV!
As captain of his country Wayne Rooney is never far from a headline but, speaking as a close observer, do you feel those who say that in showing more respect and maturity he has lost something along the way?
I don’t agree with that at all, and I think the fact he is able as a captain to ‘peacemake’ and promote dialogue with the officials is a good thing, it helps keep a flow that the referee can manage better.
He’s another target of undue criticism if you ask me, and I don’t know who he listened to or if that’s what was behind any change but it looks like he figured out [after a red card in Montenegro] that if he wanted to play more games then he would need to mature.
For me he now sets a fine example: just look at the moment he broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s club goalscoring record in what was a moment of great personal significance.
He instantly shouts at a team-mate to get the ball back so they can try and win the match, and then in reply to his first question afterwards he talks about being down because of the result. That’s a team player for you, and that fire has certainly not dimmed at all.
Have you favourite memories you could share that reflect your unrivalled access to football at the highest level and the men in charge?
Well you will forgive me for mentioning no names but one ref had had a bet on the Arc de Triomphe one year, a long time ago, as had I, and kick-off was looming.
Well, between us and the match director, somehow the bell wasn’t actually rung until we knew the result… and only then did the whistle get blown to kick off!
Another memorable occasion occurred when I was guilty of thinking: at last, here I am, getting total insight from within the dressing room and from the horse’s mouth. I still remember how nervous I was.
It was a top Premier League game and a mistake by this referee had resulted in a goal. I’ve got the producer in my ear telling me to go in at half-time, share a cuppa, go easy and try and find out whatever was in his thinking.
So in I go, telling myself I can’t be blunt here, I have to keep in mind he’s another 45 minutes ahead of him… and there we are, drinking tea and talking like we are now.
It seems to take an age to get there, but I finally pluck up the courage to ask about the build-up to the goal in question, and I’m ready to have this man open his heart and reveal all…
“Oh that”, he said, “I just f***ed it up!”
Thanks Geoff, your secret is safe with us…