John Key: a top ref - and a card to boot!

By Paul Rickett | 26/07/2017

John Key: a top ref - and a card to boot!
Referee John Key and a dismayed Nigel Clough

HE rubbed shoulders with some of the brightest stars in the game.

And he didn't take any nonsense off them.

John Key, who died at the weekend, was one of those bubbly characters you just couldn’t help liking.

He could talk for hours and absolutely loved his football, earning the respect of everyone in the game.

He once said “I treat every player the same, whether it’s at Anfield or at Flash Lane in Bramley.”
And he meant it.

I knew John, everyone knew John. Rotherham-born, he was also one of those people who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He started refereeing in 1970 in the Rotherham Sunday League, quickly rose through the ranks and after reaching the old Yorkshire League and then Northern Premier — with the Football League within touching distance — it seemed that his career had hit a wall when some officials grumbled that he wasn't up to standard.
John was having none of it.

“It had been a particularly rough season and I finished up with about 12 sendings-off and 38 cautions,” he told the Advertiser many moons ago.

“The teams I’d been refereeing had given bad reports about me and I received a letter saying I was being taken off the list.

“I refused to accept that my system of refereeing was wrong. I had always tried to be in my career: firm, fair and fearless.

“The three Fs had got me to where I was and I wasn’t prepared to change.”

But John’s despondency was soon kicked into touch. Just four days later he was summoned by the Football League for an interview. 

Despite the clubs’ moaning and groaning, the league assessor had been watching him closely and had been giving him top marks.

It wasn’t long before he was given his Football League badge in 1981 and that began a career in the pro game which laid the path for Howard Webb to follow two decades later.

John went on to ref at Wembley and ran the line at the 1986 UEFA Cup Final when Real Madrid were beaten by Cologne in front of 93,000 fans at the Bernabau Stadium.

But his roots were still deeply set in South Yorkshire and among his prized possessions — and he was presented with a fair few in his time — were a pair of crystal goblets presented by the Rotherham Referees Association to mark his achievements.  

“They mean more to me than anything,” he said.
“To receive awards from your own people is special.”

After hanging up his whistle, John could always be seen on a touchline somewhere and before packing the family bags and moving out to Cyprus he even spent time as a meet and greet representative at Millmoor — even though he was an avid Wednesdayite!

But back to that no-nonsense approach.

John recalled his first-ever visit to Old Trafford, a daunting occasion for anyone — and particularly so when he awarded a free-kick against then United and England captain Bryan Robson, at that time one of the most famous players in the world, right slap-bang on the edge of the United penalty area.

Robson was furious. “Do you know who I am,” he snarled at John, who promptly turned to another United player. 

“This guy doesn't know his own name,” he said dryly. 
“Just tell him who he is while I sort out this free-kick.”

That was John to a tee...