Alan Snoddy: 'Valderrama went down, but I knew he was time-wasting. I gave him a look that said don't try that again and I'd no more issues with him'
Alan Snoddy on refereeing at World Cup finals, keeping Irish League's characters in check and how he twice got it wrong
Everyone who followed Irish League football in the rollercoaster 1980s and '90s has an Alan Snoddy memory or story, not all of them complimentary.
That goes with the territory of being the top Northern Ireland referee of his generation, the standard bearer who inspired scores more to take up the whistle, knowing they would never win popularity contests.
Old timers lament the Irish League could be doing with his like now, such were his levels of excellence.
A measure of his scrupulous consistency of performance is that he annoyed everyone at some point - managers, players, club officials and supporters. He showed neither fear nor favour.
They also knew when they saw A. Snoddy (Carryduff) on their matchday cards that liberties were not to be taken.
It also speaks volumes for the grudging respect in which he was universally held that he cannot recall a single disputed decision souring a relationship.
Now 62 and sharing his expertise worldwide, schooling fledgling referees for Fifa and Uefa, he is pleased to relate: "I cannot recall any ill will from a disputed decision ever carrying over from the final whistle. Everyone said their piece and we moved on.
"To this day, I can count many players and managers, past and present, who would have had issues over decisions as personal friends. We socialise together and visit one another's homes.
"It is a great credit to Irish League football and its people that, whatever our differences on a given day, we are at one in our love of the game."
Whether the decision went for your team or against, when Alan Snoddy was in the middle, we didn't need to wait for TV replays to accept that he invariably got it right.
Except, he later admits, on two notable occasions and even then, those on the receiving end of those costly misjudgments can laugh about them with him now.
My own favourite Alan Snoddy story concerns a particularly feisty Linfield-Glentoran match that might have boiled over, on and off the pitch, had he not been in charge. Snoddy kept the lid on in his usual firm but unobtrusive style and for that, in my match report, I awarded him 9 out of 10 in the ratings.
The following week I bumped into him in Belfast city centre where he then worked as a Northern Bank official.
"About that mark you gave me on Saturday..." he began.
"Don't mention it," I stopped him. "You fully deserved it."
"No, no," he countered. "I just want to know where I lost the other mark?"
Half joking, half serious. I got the point, even if Alan had lost out on his.
Here was a guy who strived for perfection and yet never lost the run of himself. Always approachable, never aloof, many of today's Irish League officials might find a tough job made easier by taking a leaf from his book.
Which brings us to that very public first mistake and my second favourite Snoddy story.
Another Big Two match at The Oval, Linfield leading by a goal and the clock ticking down when a ball played into the Blues penalty area strikes captain Lindsay McKeown on the foot and spins upwards and in that split second, ref Snoddy points to the spot. Glens equalise and Blue fury erupts.
Later, viewing the TV re-run, Snoddy sees that the upward ball did not strike McKeown on the arm, as he believed.
He holds up his hands but McKeown is not going to let him forget it.
The following week, they meet again in the centre circle at Newry and, as the captains and ref go to engage in their pre-match handshakes, McKeown offers Snoddy his foot.
The Blue hordes, clearing their throats to howl their collective derision at the previous week's penalty award, collapse in laughter. Situation defused.
Laughter is always the best medicine as the wronged player and errant ref recognised. Again, underlining his point that love of the game runs deeper than club and individual rivalries, Snoddy and McKeown are today the best of pals, serving together on the Player of the Year committee of the Castlereagh Glentoran Supporters' Club.
But behind that humour, there had to be a steely determination to succeed in a vocation he chose on leaving school because: "I was never going to reach the top level as a player but I still wanted to be involved in the game."
You do not go from a 16-year-old pitched in among the flying fists and boots of the hardest Belfast junior football bearpits to the pinnacle of the World Cup finals without an unshakeable belief in what you intend to achieve and the application to improve in pursuit of that objective. At one time he was the youngest ref on the Fifa list, aged 25.
Snoddy is one of only three Northern Ireland referees to have officiated at World Cups, the others being Jack Adair in England's 1966 winning year and Malcolm Moffett at Spain '82.
Only Snoddy has been selected for two - Mexico '86 and Italia '90, where he came to worldwide attention in a still talked about incident that regularly features in those What Happened Next clips on sports quiz shows.
It was the day the unknown whistler from Carryduff faced down Colombian superstar Carlos Valderrama, he of the big hair and even bigger ego.
And it ended with Snoddy's reputation enhanced as a no-nonsense, unyielding ref prepared to make a judgment call he believed to be right and stick to it, regardless of the stage or influences.
Alan takes up the story: "I was taking charge of Germany v Colombia when just before half-time, Valderrama got involved in a tussle with an opponent and went down, signalling he was injured. I was certain he wasn't hurt, just time wasting, and played on.
"He stayed down, wanting play stopped but I ignored him so he just lay there with 70,000 people in the stadium, whistling and booing. But it wasn't aimed at me. They were jeering Valderrama's theatrics.
"Eventually the ball went out of play and I called on the Colombian medics who placed him on a stretcher and carried him off. I was told later at half-time that as soon as he was out of sight, he leapt off the stretcher and ran back up the tunnel to watch the end of the half.
"I took that as vindication. It was the first high-profile televised incident of a player feigning injury. It wasn't a bookable offence in those days but when the teams came back for the second half, I gave him a look that said, 'Don't try that again' and I'd no problems for the rest of the game."
Snoddy (right) officiated 10 World Cup games in all, two in the middle, eight on the line.
His first was Portugal-Morocco at Mexico '86, a shock 3-0 win for the then emerging north African football nation. He was also on the line for Italy-Argentina and the Mexico-Germany quarter-final, all a far cry from Ballyskeagh and Ballyclare but proving that if you are good enough, the world really can be your stage.
He recalls: "I can vividly remember that first World Cup, standing in the tunnel waiting to go out and being aware of all these world-class, household names standing behind me. I was asking myself, 'Am I really here?' But then you go out, the anthems are over and you focus and at that point, it really doesn't matter if you are in Guadalajara or Taylor's Avenue.
"Those World Cups were the highlight of my career, the second especially as I was awarded the first at 31 and didn't expect to get another.
"I feel fortunate to have enjoyed so many positive experiences out of becoming a referee. It is not a path many would choose and there has been a lot of hard work and time away from home, especially when my family were young. Thankfully my wife, Elaine, has been understanding and supportive."
Hockey was his first serious sporting pursuit, at Friends School in Lisburn, captaining the team in his final year and being selected for Ulster and Ireland schools.
"I'd played football at Finaghy Primary but I was never going to make it as a player so, after leaving Friends, I signed up for a refereeing course at Belfast YMCA and qualified at 16," he explains.
He was then thrust into the cauldrons of the Churches and Old Boys leagues. Without the luxury, protection or guidance of linesmen, he was on his own.
"It was 1970s Belfast and the pitches were in some of the most troubled areas. Draw your own conclusions what it was like for a boy among a lot of hardened characters.
"But I was accepted and it stood me in good stead. I never once felt threatened or intimidated or feared for my physical safety. It has been that way all through my career. Of course you get stick from players and especially fans but I've never considered any of it beyond the bounds.
"I wasn't aware at the time but someone in senior refereeing or IFA circles must have noticed me because, at the age of 21, I was fast-tracked into the Irish League, another education."
The seasoned characters were always going to test the resolve of a rookie but realised he was no pushover. Moreover, they recognised he was a good 'un.
"I took no pleasure in handing out red cards but if the offence warrants action, there's no choice," he says. "I prefer to see a game flow, rather than continually exert authority. We had wonderful players in my era and I loved to see them express themselves. Felix Healy and Kevin Mahon at Coleraine, Jim Cleary and Billy Caskey at Glentoran and that great Linfield goalscorer Martin McGaughey.
"And, of course, there were the legendary hard men.. Rab McCreery, Peter Rafferty, Kirk Hunter and the wayward geniuses, like Colin O'Neill. They weren't that difficult to referee, mostly they knew the line in the sand they could not cross.
"I've seen photos of me nose to nose with managers, strong characters fighting their corner like David Jeffrey, Ronnie McFall and Roy Coyle. But none of us ever fell out and that's important in the referee-player-manager relationship.
"I understand how it is more difficult now for referees to develop the same understanding under the microscope of social media, TV replays and media pressure to explain decisions in the heated aftermath of games. People need to calm down."
Snoddy played his own leading role in increasing referee numbers here, firstly from like-minded youngsters inspired by his rise through the ranks and then as the IFA's head of referee development and recruitment.
"The timing of the post being created was right for me," he explains. "I'd taken early retirement from Northern Bank and went to the IFA. I started with an empty desk and a phone. We worked hard to raise the profile of refereeing, ran courses, and when I left we had doubled numbers from 400 to over 800.
"But there will always be a drop-off rate so it is an ongoing process. The problem of abuse at lower levels can be a deterrent for some but steps are being taken to reduce that by the clubs and associations themselves who recognise the need for referees to keep organised football alive."
From the IFA, Snoddy took on a two-year role as head of refereeing on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, idyllic sounding, but again he faced challenges.
"Referees will always face pressures in a small close-knit football community such as Cyprus. I was proud when I left that the last game of the season, their Cup final, was handled by a Cypriot referee for the first time in memory. Clubs didn't trust their own referees and brought in outsiders, so hopefully the progress will continue."
Working across Europe and beyond now, training referees for Fifa and Uefa, he seems a good man to ask about the infamous Windsor Park penalty incident that played a major part in denying Northern Ireland a place in this summer's World Cup finals.
"I'm a referee and a Northern Ireland fan so, naturally, I took a close interest in the controversy," he says. "It showed how a split second decision can have far reaching consequences and leave a career in tatters. That is why it is so important to get decisions right."
Which brings us to his second and final confession, of a goal that should have stood but didn't.
"It happened at Ballymena, thankfully in the last minute with the score at 2-0 so it didn't affect the result," he admits. "I saw a shot go behind the goal and awarded a goal kick. But on the way off the pitch, some spectators at that end insisted the ball had gone through the net and I should have given a goal.
"To be certain, I went back and examined the net and sure enough, there was a hole which the ball had ripped on the way through. It should have been a goal. I was disappointed but maybe it takes incidents like that to remind us that referees are only human, after all."