The Referee Is Not A True Artist: Jack Taylor, World Soccer Referee

For Jack Taylor, the referee for the 1974 World Cup final, handling players was much like handling the clientele at the Wolverhampton butcher shop he worked at throughout his career.

“I think my experience behind the counter at the butcher’s shop helped because it made me fairly good at chatting people up,” he wrote in his 1976 autobiography, Jack Taylor: World Soccer Referee. “Although you are dealing mainly with women in the shop, human nature is much the same in footballers. For instance, sometimes when an old dear comes into the shop you can tell as soon as she steps through the door that she is in a frightful mood. Maybe she has had a row with the old man or the kids have upset her. She has clearly come in sparring for a row so you mention that her hair looks nice. Or, if she looks rough, ‘My, I bet you had a fair old time last night.’”

You think that’d work on Ronaldo today?

The Accidental Referee

Taylor, it seems, rather fell into his career as a referee in the 1950s. This was an age before full-time referees – indeed, even by the conclusion of his career in the 1970s, Taylor still writes that “I do not think we will ever have full-time referees in England.”

When Taylor began refereeing in his teenage years – he was a keen player, but not good enough to turn pro – he had little idea or ambition to move up the ladder, at least initially.

Yet once he had risen rapidly up the ranks, Taylor did not think refereeing should stand still while the rest of the game rapidly modernized in the 1960s. His career traversed the gap in England between notions of amateur idealism that staidly stuck with its administrators and into an era of modern professionalism, intense media coverage and of television saturating the game.

Taylor freely admits that “I resented television totally when it first arrived because it seemed yet another way of pointing out my mistakes to the world. I had now not only twenty-two players and forty thousand fans to put up with; another fifteen million were looking in on television and I suspected that every one of them delighted in proving me wrong.”

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Taylor soon concluded that “I could not have been further off the mark for, as I gradually learned to live with television and to understand the effect it was having on everyone, I realised it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to football.”

Taylor was a man more than willing to adapt to the modern game, and indeed, use it to his advantage. Initially fearful of the media, he soon developed close relationships with several journalists who proved trustworthy and supportive of him: “I can count on one hand the number of journalists who have let me down and broken a confidence,” Taylor writes.

Building relationships was critical to Taylor’s rapid progress from parks’ referee – getting his start at the age of 17, talked into it by a friend in his butcher’s shop – to international referee. First it was Jim Lock, a local experienced former referee and soon his mentor; then Percy Harper, the 1932 FA Cup final referee who he met by chance and who quickly became another mentor; and then Teddy Eden, a Birmingham FA official who helped accidentally land him his first full international refereeing assignment at the age of only 23, running the line for a France-Spain international in Paris.

His age quickly made him stand out. Taylor was youthful and flashy compared to his colleagues, unencumbered by a wife or a mortgage, and he wrote that I “like to think of myself as a trend-settter and I was always buying new gear and trying out new things. I always trained in a flashy track suit and had a white flash around my badge. . .I think I was one of the first referees to get in step with the fashions being set by the players by turning my shorts up.”

At 25, he was the youngest linesman in the Football League. Not that there was any training: “You just had to pick it up as you went along,” Taylor recalled. Almost straight away, he was picked on in the London press for one decision he still defended in his memoir that was seen by one reporter to have been “terribly wrong in flagging Fulham out of the cup with the worst offside call I can recall.”

Taylor, though, says that even at 25 he already knew another questionable decision would come up soon enough, and the incident would be forgotten. He could at times be quick to anger (something he learned to control), but he had a relaxed approach to dealing with the game as a whole, feeling it helped him handle pressure far better than building up tension or blowing up the importance of what was, after all, a game he loved.

Unlike many of his contemporaries in British football, Taylor had an open-minded view of the world. He clearly loved to travel; unlike his father, whose life was contained solely in his butcher’s shop, Taylor enjoyed his many trips abroad. Approaching the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, he poo-pooed English fears that there would be trouble on the field due to the aggression of South American teams, commenting – based on his past experience refereeing on other continents – that “Obviously there will be tension, because the will to win is there, but I think there is a fair standard of sportsmanship throughout the world today.”

Taylor had already observed the lack of understanding of overseas cultures in the preparation of referees for the 1966 World Cup in England: “In 1966 the referees were gathered together in London only three days before the opening match. On the whole, they were well prepared physically but they were ill prepared as a group for what lay ahead. The teams taking part had been painstakingly trained for many months. When the referees arrived in London they were given a few inadequate lectures, and they had barely enough time to get to know each other before being divided into groups and sent to the various centres around the country.”

Importantly – given the events that followed at the 1966 World Cup that so infuriated all parties – Taylor goes on to observe that “There was not enough consideration given to the different styles of football played in South America and in Europe: not enough understanding of the sort of things that referees allow on one continent but not on the other.”

It was no surprise, then, when the referees – almost all European – so unsatisfactorily controlled matches involving South American teams, who felt they were kicked out of the competition by a European conspiracy. “It is not difficult to imagine the thoughts which haunted the Brazilians, Uruguayans, and Argentinians as they packed their bags and left for home early,” Taylor concludes.

By 1970, though, FIFA had learned from their mistakes in 1966: the sole Englishman in Mexico, Taylor was one of the referees given extensive training and careful preparation by the Referees’ Committee, who looked for input from referees from each country to figure out how officials could work together. “Bit by bit we talked our differences out. The interpretations put on things in South America and Europe were compared and from this we agreed on a system of cooperation between the referee and his linesman,” Taylor recalls. In the event, the dangerous tackle from behind was clamped down on and not a single player was sent off in the entire tournament.

Taylor believed in discipline, but he also believed in understanding the actions of players and managers, and the pressures and aggression they were often responding to. “We all have a breaking point,” he writes. “When a player loses control of himself and retaliates I cannot excuse what he does, but at least I ought to try and understand it. If someone said something terrible to me how would I react? As a kid I had a temper. How would I have reacted if someone had come up behind my back and whacked me so that I had no chance of playing the ball? I must condemn the offender and I must take positive action. You will never stop trouble, so you have always got to try and understand.”

Nastiness, though, was something Taylor had trouble understanding – and even more troubled by the growth of in the modern game.

Dirty, Dirty Leeds?

One thing he was sad to see change was the attitude on the field; when Taylor began his career as a referee in the Football League in the early 1960s, it was “the closing stages of a golden era in English soccer. . .a new, tougher, breed of professional was beginning to introduce a win-at-all costs attitude that we’d never seen in this country before, while most of the game’s administrators refused to face up to reality.”

Referees were rapidly becoming a big deal, targeted by players and the media. In the old days, “on the park, we could have a quiet word and a joke. There aren’t many jokes on a football pitch today.”

Taylor saw how this spilled into the attitudes of the younger referees in the 1970s, who now “start to wind themselves up on a Thursday for a game on Saturday.”

This was the era of hard men. Yet a Times’ report on what might have been a brawl of a game between Chelsea and Leeds in January 1975 particularly praised Taylor’s handling of the game: “It was a proud match for heroes, flowing with endless action and entertainment, devoid of bus fires and anger and beautifully, even unobtrusively, handled by Jack Taylor, the World Cup final referee.”

If there was one man who could handle Leeds United, it was Taylor, who was assigned to their games 11 times in one season. He was even able to have a laugh and a joke with them: “I do not accept that players like Gabriel and Norman Hunter, of Leeds United, are dirty,” he says in his memoir. “They are hard and they push their luck a long way at times, but they should not be pilloried for having an aggressive style. Players like that, by the way, often have a good sense of humour.”

For Taylor, such a write-up mentioning his unobtrusiveness was surely the highest praise: being the centre of attention was not the purpose of refereeing, he makes clear in his memoirs. Taylor was a tall, imposing figure, confident in his own abilities, and felt no need to prove his place on the field. “The referee will never become as big a personality as the player. He must not. In some countries he is glorified, over-publicised and over-filmed . . . but the referee will never be a true artist.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Taylor recalls he “slept like a log” before taking charge of the 1974 World Cup final.

Jack Taylor performing the coin toss for the 1974 World Cup final with Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer

Jack Taylor performing the coin toss for the 1974 World Cup final with Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer

In the event, Taylor did become something of the star of the show when, feeling he had no choice, he awarded two penalties within 25 minutes. He remains convinced that from his angle, on each call, he made the correct decision.

The second was the most controversial, but in retrospect, Taylor had no regrets: “As Hoelzenbein went over, I thought to myself ‘It’s not as bad as you’re trying to make it look, old son’, but the Laws state that attempting to trip an opponent is just as serious an offence as actually tripping an opponent, and, as the German had pushed the ball two or three yards ahead when the tackle came, Jansen was certainly not going for the ball.”

Take a look, and see if Taylor’s explanation rings true for you.

Taylor was also the referee for the 1966 FA Cup Final – which, by the way, he said was a greater honour than refereeing the World Cup final for an Englishman – and here’s how he picked the ball:

“After breakfast I went for a walk in the park with ‘Tich’ Harding and then on to Lancaster Gate to select the match ball. They laid out about thirty balls, each one identified only by a number. You have to pick three and only after that has been done can you find out the maker’s name.”

That process is a bit different these days (“Neo is your new football”), but for Taylor, that probably wouldn’t have mattered too much. Despite some sadness reflected in his memoir at the changes from the sport in his early days of involvement, Taylor has remained a part of the game to this day, surely still appreciating the “fairy story” he says he has lived in the start of his memoirs.

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