This sporting life: former referee Brian Stevens reflects on stellar career
REFEREE legend Brian Stevens spent an amazing 56 years in football.
The veteran in black crossed the white line 31,002 times in a stellar career that took him from Wembley to Charfield and finally blew the final whistle at the age of 80.
Stonehouse resident Stevens, who turns 83 next month, chronicled every game in detail – dating back to 1963. He may have needed time for a career that took him to the top, but his love of the grassroots game remains steadfast.
“I’m fortunate to be President of the Stroud League and I watch games and advise young umpires.”
Stevens feels the game has changed since his time and expressed his concerns about modern refereeing: “Up higher up things get easier with VAR but I don’t think it’s a good idea for the game as a whole . We need more referees locally as there are often 17 to 20 Stroud League games without an official.”
Born and raised in Eastington, young Brian was primed to be a football official as his father ran the line for Eastington.
At the age of 13 he started playing as a forward for Eastington Reserves and later for Saul.
Brian then played for the Hoffmans Colts and scored an incredible 70 goals in one season. He then rose to the senior team of the Western League.
“Back then we played Bath City and Stonehouse and when we played Stonehouse it was not uncommon for us to have 3,000 spectators.”
Three seasons at King’s Stanley followed before Brian gave up his football boots at the age of 23 after breaking two cheekbones in one season.
In 1963, while combining his job as a toolmaker and later supervisor at the Stonehouse firm of Hoffmans, Brian began his career as a referee.
He progressed quickly, making his league arc as linesman for Preston’s clash against Halifax in 1970 before rising to refereeing. However, Brian never forgot his roots.
“I could manage Liverpool one Saturday and a local youth game the next.
“I’ve always been a little loose and humble because when you’re on your way up you have to be humble – because you’ll come down soon.”
At age 47 – the retirement age for referees – Brian was due to retire from the league, but luckily he was allowed to continue until 52. His job at the Hoffmans might have been his bread and butter, but Brian was very flexible with his football-loving boss.
“My boss was great and once allowed me to travel on short notice to officiate the Kuwait FA Cup.
“When I arrived at Heathrow I was given an envelope and 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 could only be averted because of his nationality: “I awarded a penalty and the crowd was far from happy.
“I was told that if I were a Kuwaiti referee they would have rioted.” Closer to home Brian was particularly proud of having refereed three times at Wembley. He said: “I managed England against Scotland in a school international in front of 75,000 and the FA Trophy final the week after Forest Green’s performance at Wembley in the FA vase and also the Full Members Cup final”, he remembered.
Brian also managed Wales against Ireland, with the likes of Liam Brady and Terry Yorath in action.
He missed the FA Cup final but had the honor of refereeing two FA quarter-finals, making him a national TV prominence as he was responsible for a string of cup wins.
“I officiated the FA Cup third round tie between Manchester United and Bournemouth in 1984.
“Bournemouth beat Manchester United 2-0 and when I got back to the car park my headlights on my car were smashed.”
Brian was then embroiled in the next cup upset as the mighty Liverpool were humiliated.
“I refereed the first live televised Sunday Cup Fourth Round match between Brighton and Liverpool in 1984.
The Liverpool team had the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen on their side.
Brighton scored a surprise 2-0 win and after the game the Liverpool manager Joe Fagan came up to me and said the result had nothing to do with me.”
However, when Brian returned home and took the phone call, he was shocked: “A voice on the line said, ‘I know where you live and we’re going to break all the windows in your house.’ I hung up the phone and went for a walk with the dog.”
The following season, Brian came under scrutiny again.
“I sent off Watford’s Tony Coton for berating the linesman after giving away a penalty against Arsenal. Three weeks later they were drawn in the FA Cup quarter-finals and I got the game.
“Watford was leading as the linesman marked a penalty, I waved on and Luther Blissett broke forward as the Arsenal players protested, Blissett ran clear and scored.
“That night at the game 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 made the right decision. However, I believe these incidents prevented me from reaching the final.”
Brian has never taken pleasure in sending a player off.
“I always try to talk to a player but I have to admit that I had to send off Dennis Wise and Andy Gray in a match and after that the game was fine.”
Brian ranks the enigmatic Paul Gascoigne among the most gifted players he has 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.