Referees are supposed to stay in the background. If they are unnoticed, they are doing a great job.
Players are the entertainers who soak up the adulation, though without officials there is no work for them to go to.
And it’s a measure of the respect earned by Alan Snoddy that he is so well known within the football and refereeing community in Northern Ireland and further afield.
That recognition reached another level last year when the Lisburn man received an MBE for services to football in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
And although the 66-year-old put away his cards and whistle for good in May, 2003, he’s still hard at work.
After a refereeing career which saw him begin as a teenager in the Churches League in 1972, Alan went on to become a distinguished Irish League official and make World Cup Final appearances in Mexico 1986 and Italy 1990.
Since retiring, he moved into mentoring roles with the Irish FA, Fifa and Uefa, sharing his knowledge, experience and expertise with the wider refereeing family.
He’s currently senior course leader at Uefa’s centre of referee excellence and his devotion to such a critical aspect of the game has seen him provide assistance in countries such as Macedonia, Latvia, Cyprus and Greece.
With so many stories to share, it’s not surprising that Alan is compiling his memoirs, with profits from the book going to charity.
As he reflects on his remarkable journey, this proud man can’t believe it really happened – sharing a pitch with some of the game’s greats including Diego Maradona, Jurgen Klinsmann, Rudi Voller, a young Eric Cantona and Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama whose play-acting failed to trick this streetwise official.
But probably the most astonishing fact about Alan’s career, which spanned more than 30 years, is that he was on duty for more than 1,600 matches and never missed one through illness, injury or any other reason.
On the one occasion he developed flu over Christmas, the New Year’s Day clash between Newry City and Larne was postponed due to the weather.
That’s a proud record he will always cherish but his achievements are also a source of great pride to his wife Elaine and children Philip (42), Graham (39) and Victoria (31) along with four grandchildren.
“The journey wouldn’t have been possible without my family’s support,” says Alan who still works as a match observer in the Irish League. “To have represented Northern Ireland for so long is special. I’m still amazed by it all.
“Sometimes you sit back and think is it all a dream? Never in a million years could I have predicted it all.
“It is nice to have that respect and recognition. You are being remembered for the right reasons and even when things have gone against you people can laugh about it now.”
The process of writing his life story has brought the memories flooding back, with former players and managers recalling their own encounters with a man who commanded respect.
“I’m hoping the book will be done by the end of March,” he added.
“A publisher contacted me, realising I had a story to tell. When Covid-19 hit us, I had time to start it. She persuaded me to do it and the profits will go to charity. Based on the interest people have expressed about the idea, both home and abroad, I hope it will be well received.
“I kept material from the World Cups and other tournaments as well as the Irish League and that helped me (to) remember incidents and when they happened.
“I’ve occasionally bumped into ex-players and they have reminded me of other stories.
“There was a penalty kick against Lindsay McKeown I gave by mistake at The Oval and it got quite a lot of coverage. I thought he had handled the ball but got it wrong. I got Lindsay to add his side of the story and I get on really with him.
“I could bump into any player or manager I have shared a pitch with and enjoy a laugh about it all. It’s mutual respect.
“Sometimes you have your differences but no-one has held a grudge. My biggest problem is not recognising all the players I bump into!
“People don’t have to be interested in refereeing to read it and it’s nice to give to charity too.”
Helping to raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease is one cause that is close to Alan’s heart.
“Elaine’s mum, Ellie, passed away with motor neurone disease a long time ago which is a horrible disease with no cure. We all know someone who has had cancer issues and this disease is extremely unpleasant,” he said.
“It was difficult for Elaine who also lost her father a few years ago. My own dad, Theo, died when he collapsed at Finaghy Library.”
In his youth Alan was a talented hockey player, but he was soon climbing the refereeing ladder.
“It’s an incredible record, not to have missed a game through illness or injury,” he says.
“I was 16 when I started, I knew I wasn’t going to be a top player and at that time I was playing hockey at Friends School. I was captain of the school team, played for Ulster and Irish Schools so I knew I was a decent hockey player. Football started to take over and I could feel I was moving up the ladder quite well.
“Five years at junior level was the solid foundation and football survived as the Troubles began. The game must have been a great release for people in very difficult times.”
Alan’s World Cup commitments in 1986 and 1990 gave him another layer of motivation – never to show the game a lack of respect. He wasn’t on the line when Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ helped defeat England at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City but he was in the stands.
“I was assistant for the Italy v Argentina game when he didn’t punch the ball into the net,” says Alan.
“There’s a photograph at the toss up where I am standing with Maradona and after he died the picture was shown in a lot of places.”
At the ’86 World Cup, Alan was referee for Morocco v Portugal in Guadalajara and he was linesman at group stage matches Italy v Argentina, West Germany v Scotland, Brazil v Poland and the quarter-final between West Germany and Mexico in Monterrey.
At the 1990 finals, he was referee for West Germany v Colombia in Milan and linesman at group stage games Colombia v United Arab Emirates, Belgium v Korea Republic, Costa Rica v Sweden and the round of 16 tie Yugoslavia v Spain in Verona.
The West Germany v Colombia clash created the legendary tale of Snoddy taking no nonsense from Valderrama, regarded as one of the best Colombian footballers of all time.
“Valderrama was challenged and my view was he just fell down and collapsed in a heap,” he recalls. “My decision was to play on as there was no foul. He stayed on the ground and decided to try to get the game stopped so it became a battle of wills between us.
“If I stopped the game he ‘wins’, so the ball went out of play and he was carted off on a stretcher. The clock was ticking all the time and this became a big talking point. People could see he was play acting. We were told that as soon as he was out of public view in the San Siro that he had jumped off and come back again. In those days you weren’t booked for unsporting behaviour. I think it was the first high profile case of simulation.
“You look at the Christian Eriksen case, when he collapsed after suffering a cardiac arrest with no-one near him, there’s just a fear that someone could be accused of feigning injury when they are genuinely in danger and seconds matter.. We need players to do their bit and not feign injury. Irish League players didn’t do it because it was a pride thing. They didn’t want to show people that they had been hurt, they were straight back up again.
“The World Cup experience came when I was young and a great motivation for me was not treating any game with a lack of respect.”
But, as he’s human, Alan didn’t always get it right.
“There was a match at Ballymena against Coleraine when Coleraine had a penalty to make it 2-1,” he recalls. “The kick was taken and the ball ended up on the running track. I gave a goal kick which was accepted, but after the game we discovered the ball had gone through the net.
“I looked at the goal and the net had been stretched in the corner. There was space for the ball to go through. There was no television camera there and it was just an incident that none of us spotted at the time.”
Knowing the time was right to step away from one of his great passions, Alan finally put away the whistle at the age of 48.
He took early retirement from the Northern Bank and accepted the role as Irish FA referees’ development officer.
For eight years, he used all his experience to keep the refereeing family a healthy one. Fifa and Uefa were also keen to tap into his experience and wisdom.
“It was a bit of a risk and leap of faith leaving a secure job to join the Irish FA but I was being paid to do my hobby,” he says.
Sadly, Northern Ireland has lost hundreds of referees since Snoddy stepped away from his Irish FA role and the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped maintain or improve numbers.
“There is a refereeing shortage,” he says. “Covid-19 will get a lot of blame for it but referees have drifted away.
“We had close to 850 referees when I stopped in 2013, with every game covered. Today, we have 500 at the most. They will have to try to recover that loss.
“Referee recruitment never stops and it’s vital to attract as many new recruits as possible.
“I know Trevor Moutray (Irish FA Head of Refereeing) has reiterated his commitment to widening the pool of match officials post lockdown.
“An online recruitment tool is now in place which is a welcome addition. However, I firmly believe the face to face contact with new recruits is essential in addition to online training. Let’s hope the current shortfall can be reduced urgently. I know Uefa are also planning a huge recruitment drive and will provide support to the member associations in 2022. It’s not just a Northern Ireland problem.”
Alan Snoddy MBE has a nice sound to it, a fitting reward for remarkable service and also a proud moment for the whole family.
“I got an email about the MBE and it was a big shock,” he added. “It’s just surreal. To know people have supported an application is nice for me and the family as they have had to put up with my long absences over four decades.
“It’s a huge honour for me and it’s nice that refereeing is recognised too. Family have been very supportive and that’s why the MBE is for the family and they can be proud of it.”
Alan’s life story will soon be on the book shelves and even he can’t digest the reality. It is fact, not fiction.