REFEREEING legend Brian Stevens spent a staggering 56 years in the game.
The veteran man in black crossed the white line 31,002 times in a stellar career that took him from Wembley to Charfield, finally blowing his final whistle at the age of 80.
Stonehouse-based Stevens, who is 83 next month, has kept a detailed record of every game – dating back to 1963. He may have called time on a career that took him to the very top, but his love of the game at grassroots level remains steadfast.
“I’m lucky enough to be president of the Stroud League and I’m out watching games and offering advice to young referees.”
Stevens feels the game has changed since his day and voiced his concerns on modern-day refereeing: “Higher up, things are getting easier with VAR, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for the game as a whole. Locally, we need more people to take up the whistle as you often find 17-20 Stroud League games without an official.”
Born and brought up in Eastington, a young Brian was pretty much pre-destined to become a football official, as his father ran the line for Eastington.
At the age of 13, he began playing as a striker for Eastington Reserves and later Saul.
Brian then played for Hoffmans Colts and in one season smashed a staggering 70 goals. He then progressed to the senior side in the Western League.
“In those days we played the likes of Bath City and Stonehouse and when we played Stonehouse it was not unusual to get crowds of three thousand.”
Three seasons followed at King’s Stanley before Brian hung up his boots at the age of 23, having suffered two fractured cheekbones in one season.
While combining his job as a toolmaker and eventual supervisor at Stonehouse firm Hoffmans, Brian took up his refereeing career in 1963.
He progressed quickly and made his league bow in 1970 as a linesman for the Preston versus Halifax clash before moving up to become a referee. However, Brian never once forgot his roots.
“I could be refereeing Liverpool on a Saturday and then the following day a local youth match.
“I have always been a bit laid back and humble, because when you’re on the way up you’ve got to be humble – because you soon come back down.”
At the age of 47 – the retirement age for referees – Brian was expected to come off the league, but fortunately he was allowed to continue until 52. His day job at Hoffmans may have been his bread and butter, but his football-mad boss was very flexible on Brian’s behalf.
“My boss was great and one time allowed me to travel at short notice to referee the Kuwait FA Cup.
“When I arrived at Heathrow I was handed an envelope and was told to open it on the plane. To my surprise the letter said I had to spend 10 days out there!”
During his trip Brian came close to a football riot that was only averted due to his nationality: “I awarded a penalty and the crowd were far from happy.
“I was told if I was a Kuwaiti referee they would have rioted.” Closer to home Brian was particularly proud of refereeing three times at Wembley. He said: “I officiated England versus Scotland in a schoolboy international in front of 75,000 people and the FA Trophy Final the week after Forest Green appeared at Wembley in the FA Vase and also the Full Members Cup final,” he remembered.
Brian also refereed Wales against Eire, with stars such as Liam Brady and Terry Yorath in action.
The FA Cup Final eluded him, but he did have the honour of refereeing two FA quarter-finals, which propelled him to national television prominence, as he took charge of a number of cup shocks.
“I refereed the 1984 FA Cup third round clash involving Manchester United and Bournemouth.
“Bournemouth beat Manchester United 2-0 and when I returned to the car park my headlights had been smashed on my car.”
Brian was then involved in the next cup upset when mighty Liverpool were humbled.
“I took charge of the first Sunday live televised Cup fourth round clash between Brighton and Liverpool in 1984.
The Liverpool side had the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen in their side.
Brighton pulled off a shock 2-0 win and after the game the Liverpool manager Joe Fagan came to see me and said the result had nothing to do with me.”
However, Brian was in for a shock when he returned home and picked up a phone call: “A voice on the line said ‘I know where you live and we are going to smash all the windows in your house’. I put the phone down and took the dog out for a walk.”
The following season Brian was under the microscope again.
“I sent Watford’s Tony Coton off for swearing at the linesman after he had given away a penalty against Arsenal. Three weeks later they were drawn in the FA Cup quarter-final and I was handed the game.
“Watford were leading when the linesman flagged for a penalty, I waved play on and Luther Blissett broke forward as the Arsenal players were protesting, Blissett ran clear and scored.
“That night on Match of the Day Jimmy Hill put a circle around me and said I was in a great position to see the incident and said I had made the correct decision. However, I do think these incidents prevented me from getting a final.”
Brian has never taken any pleasure in sending a player off.
“I always try and talk to a player, but I must admit I did have to send Dennis Wise and Andy Gray off in one match and the game was fine after that.”
Brian counts the enigmatic Paul Gascoigne as the most gifted player he refereed and remembers Brian Clough fondly.
“Gazza was a super player. I never had a problem with Brian and he would often come into my dressing room for a chat after the game.” .