HE’S refereed the World Cup final, the UEFA Champions League final and been awarded the MBE - all in the past nine months, writes Digital Editor Graham Walker.
But today South Yorkshire’s Howard Webb gets the ultimate honour in his home town - and it’s made him the proudest man in Rotherham.
He’s been granted the title of Honorary Freeman of the Borough, in recognition of his contributions both to sport and to charity.
Not that today’s Freemen have special rights as in ancient times. So Howard won’t be able to herd sheep through the town centre on the third Friday of the month, even if he wanted to.
Now it’s purely an expression of the high esteem in which a recipient is held in the borough. It’s also the highest honour a council can bestow.
“It’s fantastic for a proud Rotherham lad like myself - born and bred in the town, still living here and with no intention of leaving,” Howard told The Star.
“I’m delighted this honour is being bestowed on me.
“It’s something that’s a little bit different. It’s quite a select few people who have been given the freedom of the borough. Not a lot of people have had it. It’s nice to be recognised by your own people in that way.
“I’m proud of where I come from, for sure. I’m proud to carry the flag of Rotherham wherever I go around the world and it’s nice that recognition has been given.”
In an exclusive video chat with The Star - see it all online at thestar.co.uk/video - the 39-year-old, who has also refereed the League Cup and the FA Cup final, said he won’t be hanging up his black strip and whistle any time soon, but added he won’t be doing another World Cup final.
“We can only do these finals once in our career, be it the FA Cup final, the Champions League final or the World Cup final - so those won’t happen again for me.
“Whether or not I’ll be involved again in any future World Cup... there’s another in 2014 in Brazil. I’ll be eligible age wise. But there’s a lot of good referees coming through who might get their chance.”
He admits the World Cup final in South Africa, which saw Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0, was a challenging game to referee.
Howard issued 14 yellow cards, including two to the Netherlands’ John Heitinga who he subsequently sent off, more than doubling the former record of six for World Cup finals, set in the 1986.
But after watching a recording of the full game, watched live by millions around the planet, he says he can look back with a lot of satisfaction.
“To be appointed to that game is such an unbelievable feeling. It’s only taken place 19 times. There’s thousands of referees who have not reached that pinnacle. And to do so is unbelievable. I was delighted to be appointed to it. It was a challenging game, as everyone knows.
“We waited a full week before I watched the entire game back, with a colleague of mine from the Premier League. It’s the professional thing to do. I watch all my games back and look at the key incidents.
“It was a challenging game, it was an interesting match, and more exciting than I remembered it at the time, because I was concentrating on my job.
“Since the World Cup people from all walks of life recognise me in the street and have a word. The pleasing thing is almost all of the time people are supportive and seem genuinely pleased to see you. They want to say well done.”
As for the future he said: “I’ve never done the Championship Play Off Final, which is another big, important game. I’ve a personal ambition to do that.
“But I’ve still got a really privileged position of refereeing Premier League football for a living. I’m lucky that I earn a living in something I love. And I still get the same buzz. While ever that remains I’ll continue to be involved and continue to enjoy it.
“Traditionally, retirement used to be 48 in the Premier League. But one or two referees at retirement age have challenged it based on employment equality and the age limit has pretty much been removed now. So if you’re good enough and fit enough you can continue. We’ll see. I’ve five more years to go. Then I’ll reassess my position.”
Howard, now much in demand on the after-dinner circuit, is keeping his future career options open. He could still return to his day job as a South Yorkshire Police sergeant, with two years of a five-year career break left to run.
But in the meantime he is inspiring future sport stars with school visits, and he’s heavily involved in charity work, including his role as a patron of Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice.
As a Freeman, Howard will receive an illuminated address bearing the Rotherham Coat of Arms, and will sign the Roll of Honorary Freemen in front of civic guests.
Council leader Coun Roger Stone, who proposed the motion to bestow the honour on Howard, said: “I have known him for many years and he is an absolutely fantastic ambassador for both Rotherham and sport in general.
“He is also the sort of man who, despite busy work and family commitments, has made a massive contribution to charity.”
n See The Star tomorrow for coverage of Howard receiving the civic honour.