Hanging Judge: A trip down memory lane

Errol Sweeney
Errol Sweeney

Two events live long in the memory of this writer. Either or both anniversary will be remembered by some who are soccer-loving folks and, to others, well, it’s just another date on the calendar of life.

The first one and the furthest back occurred on November 26 1988. That’s when I achieved my dream of being selected to referee the Bob Save Super Bowl Final at Ellis Park between archrivals and Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.

I had been in the country for only three years and my progress up the refereeing ladder was, to say the least, meteoric.

I had come to this country as an economic migrant with my family (wife and four children) in 1985 to seek work.

Not one to let the grass grow under my feet, I had researched what to do on arrival and had also made contact with the footballing authorities. The late Aubrey May was then in charge of referees at the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and suggested I give him a call when I touched down.

This I did and I will always be grateful to him for the chance to prove myself.

With the late Zacharia Mosehle and Roger Stonehouse, president and secretary-general, respectively, of the Referees’ Association of SA, I started running the line.

My first appointment was with Stan Swart at Lynville Stadium in Witbank as an assistant referee (formerly linesman) and I continued there until fate took a hand when I was asked to take charge of a cup match at Vaal Reefs between the home team and Bloemfontein Celtic. The late Dr Petrus Molemela was present and gave me glowing praise after the game, even though his club had lost.

The then NPSL general manager, as the CEO position was know those days, Cyril Kobus, was also present and was impressed with my performance.

From then on, I got more and more middles, culminating in the 1988 cup final. It was also the first time I was called “The Hanging Judge” and it has stuck with me since and I take it as a compliment.

I was driving to the ground on the Saturday of the game and there, in black and white in bold capital letters, it read: “SWEENEY IS MYSTERY REF.” The sub headline read: “Big match control in the hands of ‘The Hanging Judge’.”

The second event happened on July 25 1993 (25 years ago), when it appeared to some as if the whole world had caved in.

As South Africa was leaving sporting isolation, the local authorities were inviting major overseas teams to come and play against the two top teams here.

The procedure would be that the two visiting teams would play against each other to “kick-start” the tournament.

Luckily for the organisers, the two teams were Manchester United and Arsenal. United were the English league champions and Arsenal were the League Cup and FA Cup winners.

I was again fortunate to be given the middle and I relished the occasion. It was a competitive game with neither set of players holding back.

Everything was fine until about half way through the second half, when United were looking for a penalty. I waved their protests away. As I was running up the field, their then captain and England captain Bryan Robson ran past me and said: “Ref, you’re a f***ing cheat.”

At that time, foul and abusive language was a straight red card and so I issued the ultimate punishment.

All hell broke loose. I wasn’t changing my mind and Robson left for an “early shower”.

Sir Alex Ferguson was quoted as saying: “The ref wanted to be the star of the show.”

I treated that with the contempt it deserved.

Afterwards, I was asked to attend a press conference with Robson. I said yes on two conditions: I would not apologise and I would not withdraw the red card. He refused to sit with me. I wasn’t bothered.

I had to send a report to the English FA and he missed the first three games of the new season.

I have other favourite memories, but, unfortunately, I don’t have enough space to put them all down.

Happy whistling!

Follow me on Twitter @dr_errol

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