The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk.
‘HOPELESS DEVOTION, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE’ – THE REFEREE
Sunday, 9 am. John Kyte carefully places his kitbag in the boot of his white Fiat Panda and glances down at a small piece of paper, running down its contents while patting various pockets. ‘Watch? Yup. Keys? Yup. Phone? Yup. OK we’re all done. Let’s go.’
It’s a ritual that he’s been faithful to for fifty-five years now, one sometimes performed up to four of five times a week. For, since the age of sixteen, Kyte has devoted every spare moment of his life to donning the referee’s whistle, officiating at more than 4,700 match, from youth football to FA Cup semi-finals. Most of that time has been spent in and around his native Black Country, working his way up from the Bilston Youth League to the top flight, via the Staffs County and West Midlands Regional.
He had regularly refereed at places like Kidderminster, Stourbridge and Halesowen and spent a fourteen-year spell running the line in the Football League, hurtling down the touchlines of footballing cathedrals like Anfield, Old Trafford and Villa Park. ‘I’d had loved to have made the middle in the Football League,’ he sighs, ‘but it never came.’
However, nearly thirty years after he hung up his Football League flag, he seems to have little inclination to halt this early-morning routine just yet. Now in his early seventies, he remains in high demand on the pitches of Wolverhampton. Most Saturdays and Sundays are given over to officiating, plus the occasional week night.
Raised on a nourishing diet of watching Wolves in their 1950s pomp, those floodlit matches of misty legend against Honved and Spartak Moscow, Kyte’s time as a goalkeeper was brought to a premature end at the age of sixteen after an extremely nasty groin injury, the details of which are best left to the imagination. Not content to be a mere spectator, Kyte soon took up the whistle, having been asked to take charge of a referee-less youth game which he happened to be cycling past. ‘It was the next best thing to playing. The following season I took the referees’ course and I’ve been a referee ever since.’
Sharing a car journey on the way to a match on the other side of Wolverhampton, he divulges the reason behind his enduring reputation as a referee. ‘It starts when you get to the ground. Don’t slope about, don’t slouch. Go into the dressing room. If the law says you get two match balls, ask for two match balls. I always like to carry the ball out with me. It shows I’m in charge. Walk onto the pitch like you mean it. Show them that you are the referee and you are in control, even before they’ve kicked off. Put the ball down in the middle, blow the whistle and that’s it. Start as you mean to go on.
‘I’m laid back, but I can be a strict disciplinarian. I get the feel of a game to start and then referee accordingly to that. You’ve always got to be ready because something can always happen in a game. Looking back, there’s not one game I had to run away and escape from.’
Kyte had a clear, local, role model. Jack Taylor, the Wolverhampton butcher, who became the world’s greatest referee. Taylor was the man in charge of the 1974 World Cup Final between the Netherlands and West Germany, who showed he had the “cojones” to match his appointment by awarding the Dutch a first-minute penalty before the Germans even touched the ball.
Not that Taylor’s high ranking prevented him from undertaking more menial assignments. Kyte recalls a match from the Wolverhampton Thursday League that he was due to referee. He was unaware who was down to run the line. ‘Who should come and pick up the flag but Jack Taylor? If you’re going to learn anything, you’re going to learn it of him, aren’t you? If he tells you anything, you’re going to listen. Every player wants to be a Cruyff or a Pele. I wanted to be a Jack Taylor.’
Taylor was always immaculately turned out and, after more than fifty-five years of service, Kyte still insists on wearing the referees’ traditional black uniform. He gleefully recalls the time when his kit would have starched, removable collars and cuffs and when his black boots would even have white laces that needed to be ‘taken out every week, washed and put back in.’ He believes smartness to be a key part of exerting authority on the pitch. ‘You have to look the part. I’ve seen referees doing kids’ matches, one sock hallway down their leg. No black, no cuffs, no badges.’ He glances across from the driving seat, a hint of a grin at the corner of his mouth. ‘Slovenly…’
He’s on a roll now. The manifesto is fully formed. ‘And I’ll tell you another thing. Have a smile on your face. It ain’t a serious thing. It’s not life or death, despite what Bill Shankly said. No, you go there to enjoy it.’
It might not be life or death, but football has taken precedence in the Kyte household, as confirmed from the time his son was born in 1970. ‘Twelve o’clock, a phone call from the hospital. “I’m pleased to inform you that you can come and collect your wife and son now. They’re ready for collection.” “OK, I’ll be up there about six o’clock.” “Six o’clock?!” this nurse says. “They’re ready to come out now.” “But I’m refereeing the Hednesford vs Worcester City cup tie this afternoon. Look I’ve waited nine months. Another few hours isn’t going to hurt…’”
What could be conceived as a mild case of chauvinism is in fact evidence of Kyte’s sense of loyalty, of an innate inability to let the clubs, the league, down. ‘To get on and get the rewards, you have to dedicate yourself. The phone might go at four in the afternoon. “Can you go to Wrexham tonight? So-and-so has cried off.” If you say no, you’ll get no more. My answer was always “Yes, I’m on my way”.’
Work has always had to bend around his sporting commitments, too. As a teenage referee, he was employed at a local steelworks. ‘I had a good job. I was a shift worker, but it got in the way of football. I used to work 2-10pm or nights. Somenone said I’d never get on as a referee if I wasn’t available every Saturday, so I left. In them days, jobs were easy to come by. You could leave one on Friday and start a new one on Monday.’
We arrived at our destination now, the home ground of Bilbrook Juniors, in the suburb of Codsall. A couple of teams hire out the pitches on Sundays and a gaggle of players are gathering, perching on car bonnets while chewing the fat – quite literally in the case of two less-than-athletic players demolishing bacon butties.
The officials are clustered at the far end of the car park. This isn’t just a player/official divide. It’s a generational one, too. John isn’t the oldest official today. The other linesman is seventy-seven! Bringing the average age of our trio, is the referee, a lad in his twenties who’s currently preparing for the game by taking long, satisfying pulls on an e-cigarette.
These advanced ages aren’t so unusual. At one recent match here in the Wolverhampton Sunday League, the combined ages of the three match officials clocked in at 209. ‘I keep going because there’s such a shortage of referees,’ explains Kyte. ‘If you took all the referees who are over fifty out of this league, you’d probably take three-quarters off the list and annihilate the Wolverhampton Combination League. The older referees are reliable and they turn up. With the young’uns nowadays, there are so many other attractions. They’re available until Saturday night and the they cry off. Something more interesting has come up. Maybe the Wolves are at home. I would never think of standing and watching a game of football when I could be running around instead.’
These seasoned sages of the local football scene confirm that these declining levels of commitment and participation are echoed on the playing side. ‘There used to be ten divisions in the Wolverhampton Amateur League and nine divisions in the Wolverhampton Works League. Neither of those leagues exist now. There are currently seven teams in the Wolverhampton Combination League. Just seven.’ Kyte turns the word around in his mouth, showing displeasure at its bad taste. ‘Seven…’
Harry Worrall recalls a recent match he had to abandon because not enough players were on the pitch. Not because of a mass brawl and a flurry of red cards. One side had started with ten players, the opposition with just eight. A couple of injuries rendered the match unplayable.
We appear to be tempting fate with the subject of our conversation. At the players’ end of the car park, a shout goes out as a newly arrived BMW finds a space. ‘We’ve got two now!’ The call comes from the manager of one of the teams whose match Kyte, Worrall and the e-cigarette-puffing ref will be officiating. It doesn’t look good. Kyte hasn’t bothered getting changed, informed by his years of experience. Indeed, just five minutes shy of kick-off, the team – saving their blushes by not naming them – still wouldn’t be quorate if they were just a five-a-side outfit. The match is called off, the opposition handed a 3-0 walkover. The officials’ match fees still get paid, though, Kyte’s £19 linesman fee comfortably covering his petrol costs.
The hours are filled by heading back to his bungalow, where he disappears into the spare room. Here the shelves are lined with trophies and medals, the long-service spoils of officialdom. The floor is awash with cardboard boxes filled with silverware.
Kyte spills a pile of photos, press cuttings and programmes across the dining table. Each photo – almost all are era-specific Polaroids – shows a similar set-up: him and another linesman, both flag in hand, flanking a referee almost always shorter than his two assistants. Taken between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1980s, Kyte’s wavy fringe lessens and loses its sandy colour as we flick through the photos, as we flick through the years. Similarly, the referees’ sideburns shorten with each photo.
These pre-match smiles are from Kyte’s time in the Football League, when he would assist some of the greatest legends of the refereeing world – the likes of Clive Thomas, Neil Midgeley and George Courtney. As any football obsessive from these times could confirm without the slightest help from Google, these particular refs hailed from Porthcawl, Salford and Spennymoor respectively. Indeed, I can hear Barry Davies in my head right now. ‘And our referee today is Mr Allan Gunn from Burgess Hill…’
While this haul of souvenirs covers his Football League years, Kyte’s entire refereeing career is compacted into a shallow cardboard box that he’s now placing on the glass table. In this box is the bigger picture, the full story. It contains nearly 100 match books, soft-back note-books no bigger than the palm of your hand, each one fifty pages in length. Every match Kyte has officiated in, no matter how lowly, has its own page, its own details documented. Date, location, score, weather conditions, that kind of thing.
Giving equal billing to each match, these books offer fascinating snapshots of a have-whistle-will-travel official. For instance, one volume reveals that, within twenty-four hours of running the line for a Notts County/Everton encounter in the old Fist Division in 1983, Kyte was back in his kit, taking charge of a heavyweight clash between the Fox & Goose and Penn British Legion. Such delicious juxtaposition isn’t unusual. That same year, Kyte refereed an under12s match one Sunday afternoon (his third game of the weekend, the records show), before flying out to Greece to run the line for a Cup Winners’ Cup tie between AEK Athens and Ujpesti Dozsa the following Wednesday.
Each page also has a pithy overview from Kyte. A match between Hadley Colts and Bradley Youth Club in 1960, which ended in a 24-0 defeat for the home side, is summed up by the understated comment ‘Too one-sided to be called a game.’ That very first match he officiated, with his bike propped up on the touchline, is immortalised by ‘Good game spoilt by rain.’
Flicking through these match books, the obvious question is whether they’ll reach a 100th volume. That is, whether match number 5,000 is within Kyte’s reach. ‘It’ll be touch and go. But, as fit and healthy as I am, I see no reason why not. However, I wouldn’t do it if I was keeping a young person down. If there were twenty young referees who couldn’t get a game on a Saturday or a Sunday, but I had one, I’d say “No, take me off and put them on”.
‘I keep thinking “I’ll have another season. I feel fit enough.” I came off the Football League in 1988 and I’ve been saying that ever since. When you have that break for summer, it whets your appetite. After two and a half months off, you look forward to it. I’ll be pining to get back on.’
John Kyte puts the match books back in order and returns them to their cardboard box. The energy and enthusiasm, outwardly betrayed by his heavy eyelids, remains. “Yes, go on,’ he chuckles. ‘Have another season.’
Updated 12:40 - 20 Feb 2018 by GAFC News
John Kyte finished the 2015-16 season officiating his 4,758th match when he took charge of the Jim Blower Memorial Cup final between Azaard Sports and Whitmore Reans. The whistle’s not going into retirement just yet. ‘I’ll be continuing next season,’ he smiles defiantly. ‘God willing…’