As a football referee, Tristan Turner flouted the convention that the man in the middle should be unobtrusive and anonymous in ensuring the smooth passage of play.

During games, Tristan Turner would dig the toes of his Adidas football boots into the muddy turf and fling up his arms in an extravagant gesture in the style of Rudolph Nureyev.

Turner brought ballet to soccer, explaining that the game was ethereal, it floated across the turf untroubled by physical contact, unlike those rough and tumble games of rugby union and league.

Most frequently the beauty of ballet was represented by a pirouette performed in the penalty area, often at the start of play, or it might be a petit allegro, an arabesque or even a chasse near the centre circle. The pirouette usually denoted a goal, petit allegro a free kick and croisee, a corner.

Indeed, as Tristan Turner often pointed out, there was nothing in the Association Football rules to forbid the saut or even the petit saut; he was free to bring his own flourish to the bureaucratic role of the man with the whistle, the man in black.

Turner’s performances on the pitch during schools soccer games did not win over all the audience, however, and soon there were moves afoot to banish him to the wings forever.

Don Bentley, as a reluctant observer of schools football, also found himself an unwitting witness to the unfolding events on and off the football field that ultimately had nothing to do with sport and more to do prejudice and discrimination.

Bentley had only recently been appointed sports editor of the Woking News and Mail, a position each trainee journalist had to fill for about a year, basically to learn newspaper editing and layout skills. Games in the Woking and District Primary Schools Football League did not usually require the attendance of the sports editor whose main focus, besides editing the sports pages, was to report on the team representing Woking in the nation’s premier amateur league. Bentley was not entirely happy when he was instructed by the editor to attend some of the school matches in the mornings. The newly established league had been seeking a local company to donate a cup to be presented to the season’s top team and the editor thought that this might be an ideal way to raise the newspaper’s profile among schoolchildren and their mothers and fathers. First he wanted Bentley to check out the league and its officials, to see if they were worthy recipients of the company’s largesse.

“I see picture spreads in this Bentley, and parents and grandparents buying the paper in the hundreds,” said the editor, always looking for a way to boost circulation.

Bentley was under firm instructions when it came to the cup. It must not cost more than 10 pounds and he was pointed in the direction of a local jewellers, which had over the years been a big advertiser. There he might get a discount. No money could change hands, though, and no commitment to supply a cup be made until Bentley had satisfied himself and the News and Mail’s accountant that the new league could be ongoing, and properly managed, so that year after year the good name of the newspaper, and its commitment to the community, would shine as bright as the polished, silver-plated cup.

The snow lay heavy on the ground as Bentley arrived at the village green in the hamlet of Horsell, on Woking’s fringe, where the children’s game was to be played. Bentley surveyed the surroundings grumpily: a huddle of parents at the touchline, eager boys and girls chattering and laughing, stretching, some stamping their feet in the winter chill to keep them warm. It was much like the scene being enacted at that moment at a thousand soccer pitches up and down the country, in rain or snow; let play begin.

And then the referee appeared or, to be more precise, made an entrance and Bentley immediately realised that this would be a game like no other he had seen.

As required and mandated by the rules of the Woking and District Primary School League the referee was in full referee’s uniform, of black shorts and shirt. Only this referee’s kit had been neatly pressed, with creases down the front of the shorts, crisp creases that looked more like pleats. To Bentley’s untrained eye in the fashion field, the uniform also appeared to be custom made and not one bought from the catalogue of sporting wear that came with the rules of the football league when individual players, their parents and officials signed up. The uniform carried embellishments and refinements not seen before in any league, even at the highest level in the Woking soccer universe, the Isthmian League. This uniform had a white trim to its black shirt and shorts, and the referee’s whistle was attached to a lanyard with an intricately knotted cord.

The children, stripped down to the kit of their respective teams, had already taken to the field and were kicking several balls around in practice. The referee strode to the centre circle and solemnly summoned the captains of both sides, Horsell and Woodlands primary schools. He then produced an impossibly burnished penny for the toss to determine who started play, and from what end, before launching the coin in the air with an exaggerated flick of the fingers of his right hand.

A pirouette and a blast of the whistle, and play was under way.

It was difficult for Bentley to keep his eyes on the passage of play. He was transfixed by the antics of the referee: his precise and carefully controlled steps when measuring the distance of a defensive wall during a free-kick; outstretched arm in frozen pose when awarding a corner; an exaggerated look of disapproval at the sight of a blatant foul like tripping.

The reports of matches in the schools league were usually sent to Bentley’s office by teachers or parents, then typed up in a neat précis to be published in the Woking News and Mail on the following Friday. For the Horsell game, simply because he was in attendance, Bentley decided to write the report himself, and give it a little longer space than was usually afforded by the newspaper to school games.

Despite his annoyance at having to attend the game, Bentley afforded himself a little fun when writing the report, including all the sporting clichés he had been trained not to use. His name would not go on the report and the column inches would provide space for an experiment in sports journalism satire.

According to Bentley’s report, at the start of play the captain winning the toss bad kicked off the sphere and it was not long before the beaten custodian in one of the goals was picking the ball out of the union bag. Horsell Primary had found their winning ways, as one-nil victors, but it had been a game of two halves, with both sides dominating during each half-hour spell before and after the half-time break, or “orange time”.

The game in fact had been marred by an ugly tackle, with the culprit sent to the dressing room for an early shower. That might have been disturbing enough for the parents watching the beautiful game, especially played by youngsters who should be out on the pitch for the pure fun of playing and not be concerned with brutal physical contact, but there was a different kind of menace in the air, one that brushed Bentley like the chill air rustling the collar of his duffle coat.

Although the snow had stopped falling before the game, a black cloud hovered, threatening a blizzard that defied journalistic cliché, sporting or otherwise. Bentley had a meeting planned with the senior officials of the league to discuss the donation and presentation of the Woking News and Mail trophy. The clubrooms at the Horsell recreation ground proved an appropriate venue because the president of the league was also a parent whose young son captained the Horsell Primary School football team.

The clubrooms themselves had an attraction and aura for sports enthusiast Bentley that went beyond the game of Association Football: the Victorian pavilion was also the headquarters of the Horsell and Woking Cricket Club, two of whose members were firmly cemented in the history and legend of the county side, Surrey. They were the famous Bedser twins and Bentley had had the pleasure of meeting them while reporting on the annual general meeting of the Horsell and Woking club, of which they remained members.

It was difficult to be in the clubrooms without the names of Alex and Eric Bedser featuring somewhere in the conversation, whatever the occasion and whatever the sport so implanted were they and their exploits in the folklore of Woking sport. The pavilion and sports ground were the closest that Woking, a Victorian town that grew with the expanding railways serving London 30 kilometres away, had to a sacred site. Just in case anyone was left in doubt that this was Bedser territory, the pair looked down sternly from countless black and white photographs on the clubhouse walls; their names also embossed in gold leaf on the honour boards for bowling and batting, from the time they first played for Horsell and Woking in the early 1930s.

“I don’t know what the Bedsers would make of it,” said Archie Miller, the president of the Woking and District Primary Schools Football League, to a gaggle of parents and officials grouped around him.

“Well you can be liberal, but this is kids. And what do they make of it all.”

Bentley stood at the sidelines listening to the Miller. He didn’t need to be told of the subject of conservation. It was the referee.

Bentley pushed forward to introduce himself.

“Ah, the News and Mail. Thanks for all your help and I hope you enjoyed the game,” said Miller.

“Good standard of play,” Bentley said politely.

“We were just discussing the referee,” said Miller.

“Well, I mean it’s all right for up in London, in the North Circular League, but it’s inappropriate here.”

Bentley feigned ignorance. “Sorry?” he said.

“The referee, all that ballet dancing. Well, I mean, it’s not the bloody Bolshoi. Can you imagine that on the cricket pitch? Umpire would be lynched by the fast bowler.”

The parents and officials standing around Miller nodded, laughing nervously

“Oh the referee,” said Bentley again. “Eccentric, that’s how I would describe it.”

“Bleeding eccentric? Downright disgraceful. He’s got no place on the pitch with kids.”

Any pretence to pull punches, to restrain from open criticism of the referee and his display of dancing had now been jettisoned.

“Well he’s a homo, no doubt about that,” said another parent on the fringe of the group. This was the 1960s and the adjective “gay” had not entered the lexicon to describe a homosexual.

Back at the office on the following Monday, Bentley endorsed the league as worthy of support from the newspaper. It was popular with parents and well organised and he could hardly raise the question of an eccentric referee as being a cause for disquiet. All the same Bentley knew he was going to be drawn into the politics, mores and machinations of the Woking and District Primary Football League. For Bentley it was going to be a long, cold winter.

Because of the newspaper’s involvement in the league, Bentley was instructed to attend at least one game each weekend, fitting them in with his coverage of the major Isthmian League side. He preferred to go to the home games of Horsell Primary, mainly because Horsell was the best team in the league and the team’s games were usually thrilling encounters with a high standard of play from those so young. The parents, under the guidance of Archie Miller, whose son was in the team, saw to that with intensive coaching sessions at least twice a week.

Contact with Archie Miller also served another purpose which improved Bentley’s standing with the editor. Miller was managing director of a new car dealership in north-west Surrey which was a big advertiser in the News and Mail. The editor told Bentley on more than one occasion that it was the sort of contact with the community the newspaper should be making.

When he was officiating, the antics of referee Tristan Turner remained a problem for the Horsell parents, and slowly opposition to him spread through the league to other teams. There were even letters to the newspaper about him, letters that the editor declined to print. References to homosexuality were oblique and disguised, though, with a frequent theme being the advisability of combining ballet with soccer instruction out on the football pitch.

At the same time the parents of Horsell Primary, led by Archie Miller, did not hold back from direct criticism and matches at which the referee Turner officiated became increasingly tense affairs.

The referee was aware of the controversy that was increasingly surrounding his ballet displays, but he laughingly shrugged them off. It was clear the focus of the disquiet, the children, had no problems with referee Turner or his antics on the pitch. With the children, he was always the preferred referee. He was fair and tolerant, unlike some of the other officials – some of them school teachers – who brought the harsh regimen of the classroom to the pitch.

Bentley suggested to the editor that he write a profile on the referee, to go with the profiles he was writing on each team in the league, building up to the last weekend of the season when the cup would be presented. The editor warned him off the idea.

“Let’s let sleeping dogs lie, lad,” he said one morning. “I’m not having ballet in my paper.” Bentley could not determine if he was joking or not, but he was certainly wary of bringing the schools’ soccer league into disrepute and its locally powerful president.

Bentley decided to meet the referee, anyway. They shared coffee and cake at a local bakery and cafe the next day, Rose’s Tearooms, a favourite haunt of Turner when he was not at the day job, that of a pastry chef at a hotel in nearby Guildford. The question of sexuality never came into the conversation, but ballet featured strongly.

“I just love to dance; dance, dance and dance,” said Tristan Turner, his eyes wide and sparkling as he spoke. He was a fit-looking man in his early 30s, who cycled to games on an ancient black Raleigh bicycle, his long blonde hair and fawn scarf flowing behind him. “And what’s wrong with that, and what’s wrong with a little flourish on the soccer pitch? We’ve got to be free. This is the Sixties, We got to be free, free, free.”

The notion of freedom on the soccer pitch did not cut any ice with the officials of the primary schools’ football league, especially as Archie Miller was outraged one afternoon to see his son Alex, captain of the Horsell team, doing a pirouette after scoring a goal. Another parent, a burley butcher, had dragged his son off the pitch and taken him home for doing the same routine, the son crying as he went.

Towards the end of the season, the name of Tristan Turner began to be omitted from the fixture list issued each Monday ahead of the Saturday or Sunday games. Sometimes referees went without a game, to give new recruits a chance, but when several weeks went by without a game Turner began to suspect he was being squeezed from the roster.

Bentley noticed, too, and phoned Turner to see if there had been official word about his apparent axing. No contact, no explanation, said the referee, but he added that he knew that sooner or later he would suspended from the league.

Bentley realised he was on to a good story, a scoop, if it could all be confirmed. It might even make lineage in the national newspapers. The referee, however, was not about to complain, he did not want to make an official protest and expose the league to any potential embarrassment.

He knew full well that ballet could be used as a metaphor for homosexuality.

His disappointment, though, was palpable when Bentley met him again at Rose’s Tearooms.

“I just love to referee, and I just love to dance. Does that make me different?” he asked Bentley.

“I told you, stay clear of this one,” the editor said to Bentley went to returned to the office, in what Bentley sensed was an admonishing tone. The banishment of a referee, who may or may not have homosexual tendencies, might be a big story for the nationals but, without a complaint from him or an official confirmation from the league, the issue would only do damage to the Woking News and Mail and its reputation in the town. It would remain rumour.

“The lesson in this is that if the referee complains about discrimination, and writes letters to his MP or whoever, then it’s a yarn but if he doesn’t then we’ve got to let it go,” he said. “Pursuing this sort of thing makes it look like we got an agenda.”

“But,” Bentley protested, “Haven’t we got an agenda to stamp out discrimination, to give homosexuals a fair go.”

“Has he told you he’s a homo?”

“No,” said Bentley.

“Well, you might end up looking as though you’re the one saying it. Being effeminate, a nancy boy or whatever, is a long way from being a homo. You remember that son, and make sure you don’t go saying it or implying it yourself, in spite of all your good intentions. You don’t want to be the one calling him a homo, because that’s what it is going to look like if you don’t watch out.”

The editor was drawing on all his instincts honed as a reporter and editor over 40 years. This story promised trouble, the editor had a gut feeling about it but how could he define a gut feeling to Bentley. There were some instances and situations and issues that even a wordsmith of 40 years standing could not find words for.

“Leave it alone, son. When you got some more experience under the belt you’ll be able to spot the ones that are likely to rear up and bite you on the arse, and this is one, believe me.”

Bentley may have seen his prized scoop slipping away but events were to unfold to give him an even bigger story, one not only touching on the subject of discrimination against people perceived to be homosexuals, or “different” in the parlance of the officials of the primary schools’ football league, but one of a nascent tolerance of those who might not fit the social norm or convention.

The absence of referee Turner from the weekly fixtures had not been lost on the players, who muttered among themselves that games were not quite the same without pirouettes and petit allegros. Parents were questioned on the journey to and from games, and between spells of homework during the week, and it became clear that the schoolchildren were not happy with the answers.

Reference by some parents, behind hands held to the mouth, with muttered breath, might have been made to “shirt-lifters” and “bum bandits” , but at the same time schoolchildren were openly and loudly asking where referee Turner was, and wasn’t it about time he refereed one of their games.

Because Tristan Turner was the most expert and experienced of the referees it had been assumed as the season approached its end that he would be the one to referee the final match, involving Horsell and Woodlands again, and the one that would determine   the champion team. But his name did not appear on the roster and a retired and ageing former teacher, who could barely cover the pitch when games were in full flight, was assigned the game.  It also appeared the referee did not have a full appreciation of the off-side rule,  so many contentious goals on break-aways had he awarded, or disallowed, in games under his control during the season.

Bentley had been at home on the eve of the match, polishing the cup he was to present and writing a brief speech in which he was to praise the endeavours of each team. He was a little nervous about his first exposure to pubic speaking and had left a blank space at the end of his speech so that he could quickly insert the name of the winning team just before he presented the cup. He was determined not to confuse the teams and present the trophy to the wrong side.

Bentley’s preoccupation with the speech and cup presentation had taken his mind of the major issue of the day, not the season-ending match itself but the absence of a referee who had won the respect and support, and hearts, of the players.

When he arrived for the game he found the muddy ground mired in crisis.  Archie Miller could be seen running up and down the touchline, urging players from each side change into their kit. The young players, though, sat sullenly on the steps of the Horsell and Woking Cricket Club pavilion.

“We want Tristan,” chanted Archie Miller’s son.

“I had this all last night, I’m not having it now,” Miller told his son angrily. “Get into your kit and play. We got a big match here.”

“Won’t,” said Alex Miller. “We want…”

“Leave it to me,” said the referee rostered for the game. He made the 22 players of both sides stand in front of him and proceeded to give a lecture about endeavour and sportsmanship and listening to, and showing respect for, and obeying, parents.

“Won’t,” the schoolchildren, from both teams, shouted in unison.

“We want Tristan and we are not going to play without him. He should be the referee. He’s fun,” said Alex Miller. “And he knows the off-side rules.”

The stand-off persisted, with Archie Miller finally saying the game was to be called off.

“But perhaps we could find Mr Turner,’’ said another parent, stepping forward hesitantly at first but then raising his voice so everyone could hear. He was a local plumber, who had not been entirely happy with the muttered “backdoor” jibes he had heard increasingly throughout the season but had gone alone with the criticism all the same.  “It’s the last game after all. We’ve all looked forward to it. The kids have and it’s their day and their say.”

“Yeah” said another parent, a mother of one of the girls in the Horsell team. “If my Alice says she wants Mr Turner to be ref that’s fine with me.”

Bentley, still clutching his polished cup, stepped forward with a possible solution, if it was required. When he had practised his public speaking the night before he hadn’t realised he would be making an impromptu statement.

“Everybody,” he shouted. “Perhaps we could invite Mr Turner to come and referee the game. There would be a little delay but it could be played.”

Bentley said that he might know how to contact Tristan Turner if so required. Archie Miller, in a brief consultation with the other parents, instructed Bentley to try to contact referee Turner and report back as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the children were instructed to run around the pitch to warm up, and the stand-in referee took off his football boots and left for home without saying another word.

Bentley had Turner’s home telephone number and his heart sank when he received no reply there.  He then phoned Rose’s Tearooms, and was told Turner was sitting in his favourite window seat .

“Hi, Tristan,” Bentley said breathlessly, for the first time calling Turner by his Christian name.  “Glad I found you. The kids are rebelling, they won’t take the field without you for the final match. You gotta come quick.”

Referee Turner was soon furiously peddling his cycle to his home, to snatch up his referee’s kit.

“Damn”, he said to himself when he realised he had not pressed it the night before, there had been no need. He looked towards his iron, but realised a spot of ironing would result in added delay. There was no time to lose, crease or no crease.

A story of journalism, once! 

Number 40 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler