By Russell Kempson
Football League referees frequently go beyond the call of duty, often having to finish their shifts at work before setting off to officiate at grounds all over the country. "Have whistle, will travel" is their motto. For Danny McDermid, that call of duty - appropriately, when he's off-duty - is taking him to the very extremes.
McDermid is a Major in the Army, a deputy station commander now based in Cyprus. But when he recently accepted a new two-year posting on the Mediterranean isle, not for one minute did he contemplate calling an early halt to the season or his refereeing career. So his arduous 4,000-mile round trip "commute" to each match will continue until the end of this month.
Perhaps further should he be appointed to a leg of a Play-Off semi-final or even a final. A trip to Wembley Stadium would seem a fitting way in which to mark his 21 years of service in black before he goes off again to serve Queen and country abroad, adding to his tours in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be a major appointment, indeed.
Today, it is the quieter and less battle-scarred environs of the futuristic Ricoh Arena that McDermid is visiting, for the npower Championship encounter between Coventry City and Peterborough United. He left Larnaca airport on Cyprus at 2pm on the Friday, on a five-hour flight into Heathrow, and stayed with his mother-in-law, Hilary, in Hampshire overnight.
It is now 10.15am on the Saturday as we head along the M4. McDermid shows few signs of wear and tear but, at that time in the morning, the conversation is perhaps a bit too bright and breezy for my still sleep-addled brain. I'm more of a late-night soul. As I gradually wake, though, the drive becomes more pleasurable as Danny chats about his love of amateur photography and of his recent six-month stint in Afghanistan, where he met Cheryl Cole and Colin Montgomerie, his fellow Scot.
Cole, the singer, and Montgomerie, the golfer, arrived on a Pride of Britain morale-boosting trip. "Cheryl was fantastic," Danny said. "Nothing was too much trouble and every squaddie wanted a photo with her. Monty met the troops and even set up a driving range in the desert. We got pictures with him and the Ryder Cup but I did have to grab him quickly, just in case, as an Apache helicopter suddenly came in. I apologised and he was fine. I was told: 'You'd know if he was upset!'"
The tale is engrossing and McDermid almost misses Junction 13, the turn off to the A34, to Oxford, the M40 and on to Coventry. He has other fascinating and amusing tales, too. "I like to get to games early," he said. "You never know with the British roads. My first game in The Football League was down at Yeovil. It was 99 miles to get there and it took me just over four hours. It was a nightmare. You're supposed to get at the ground by one o'clock at the latest but if you're there after that, you have to explain to The League why you were late. So for my first-ever game I was late and had to report myself!"
McDermid, 45, does his prep work before each match. "I get on the internet, look at the two teams, their form, their discipline and which players might cause me a few issues. And they'll also do their homework on me. How many games I've done, how many red and yellow cards I've handed out. That's to be expected.
"It's not because I'm going to look out for those players, it's because I might look at those who I feel I might have to work harder with to make sure there are no cards. I take it as a positive to try to work with the teams, to be a friendly force, to have a bit of banter with them as opposed to being the man in black who some of the players think might be the enemy. I try to break the barriers down.
"I've probably got another four games to go after this and maybe a Play-Off. That would be a great way in which to go out on. It would be just too much to fly over every weekend next season. And the midweek games as well. It just wouldn't work. I've had a lot fewer games than the other guys this season, because of when I was on operations in Afghanistan, but I'm top of the merit tables in club marks, assessors' marks and overall. I'm proud of that. But maybe today's match could just turn it all around and put me bottom, bottom, bottom."
We both laugh. "You never know what is looming around the corner," Danny adds. "I just work hard in every game and hope to get the rub of the green. The game can be so fickle sometimes." It can be, it is. Many a true word spoken in jest, as events that transpire later would prove.
Onwards up the M40, still sent to Coventry. And McDermid offers an intimate insight into his past. How he played for Arbroath Reserves in Scotland at the age of 15; how the defender dreamt of playing for his beloved Celtic; how his playing days were hampered by a knee injury; and how he took up running the line. "I got the bug," he said.
"OK, I was never going to play for Celtic, anyway," Danny concedes. "But playing taught me what was a dirty tackle and what was a fair tackle. If you know what the difference is, that's a good trait to bring into refereeing. As long as you've played the game, at whatever level, you know what's malicious and what's accidental. It helps you so much."
It is 11.30am - on the Coventry outskirts, almost at the Ricoh. Still time for a brief summary of his career in black: the York & District League, when he was stationed at the Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire, progressing through the Northern Premier League and Conference on to The League line in 2003. Three years later, The League middle beckoned.
We pull in but the Little Chef is shut, boarded up. Recession, cutbacks, everywhere. So it's farther on to McDonald's on the Gallagher Retail Park for coffee - Danny pours in sachet after sachet of sugar - and a muffin. He puts on his tie when we get back to the car - "I've got to look smart" - and Ricoh here we come. And at 12.35pm, well before one o'clock; no need, this time, for Danny to report himself.
Everyone is friendly towards a referee ... before the game. Danny first checks that there is no clash of colours with the Coventry and Peterborough kitmen and then joins Andrew Hutchinson and Mark Jones, his assistants, and Ian Rathbone, the fourth official, in their dressing-room. It is spacious, with a separate changing area, and John, the welcoming steward, offers any assistance that may be needed.
After a quick inspection of the Ricoh pitch, which is in excellent condition, the group visit the Legends Lounge and take tea or coffee - the "Referee's Refreshments", a sign says - at a large round table. No-one is tempted to use any of the betting coupons spread liberally on the table, perhaps wisely, and a large flatscreen on a wall is noisily showing Sunderland taking on Tottenham Hotspur at the Stadium of Light.
Mick Fletcher, the referees' assessor, arrives with his friend, Bill, and everyone catches up on the latest gossip. "I do still miss the buzz of being out there," Fletcher, a former Football League referee and Premier League assistant, admits. "But it's my sixth season assessing and I do enjoy it." Rathbone, a Northampton postman, reveals that he had already done a shift on the streets, getting up at 4.15am and not finishing until 9am. But he looks awake, fit and ready to go.
Back on the pitch, near the centre circle, McDermid delivers a pre-match pep-talk to his colleagues, occasionally glancing at a small cribsheet of facts and figures that he had prepared earlier. What to do, what not to do, what to look out for. "And if you don't understand Darren Ferguson [the Peterborough manager]," Danny says to Rathbone, "let me know and I'll come over and interpret for you!"
A quick briefing with the deputy safety officer follows, as the group try to avoid a drenching from the sprinklers that keep popping up, and Danny asks for the floodlights to be turned on - it is a murky day - from the start. Returning to the dressing-room, McDermid has an audience with Andy Thorn, the Coventry manager, Sammy Clingan, his captain, Kevin Russell, the Posh assistant manager, and Grant McCann, his captain. When he's finished talking, there are no questions.
Kick-off, game on. It is an ebb-and-flow contest, with Coventry mostly dominating but ultimately left deflated by conceding a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw, which did little to aid their relegation fight. McDermid officiates busily, scurrying around, chatting to players, issuing quiet words of advice. A nailed-on penalty for the home side is not disputed and three bookings - for Coventry's Clive Platt and Chris Hussey and Peterborough's Lee Frecklington - are undeniable also.
Of Frecklington's yellow, for a poor tackle on Oliver Norwood, Danny observed later: "I'd warned him earlier for a similar challenge. It's like 'Another one of those, mate, and you're going to leave me no option'. He was fine about it."
On Platt's booking, for a late challenge on Gabriel Zakuani: "He'd just come on and was getting used to the tempo of the game but there'd been a bit of holding going on. Then he had a swipe, then that challenge, not even looking at the ball."
On Hussey's card, for a foul on Paul Taylor: "The guy [Taylor] was way away down the line but the other lad [Hussey] took him out to break up a move. But he actually apologised to me. He said: 'Sorry, ref, I had to take one for the team'."
And on the penalty, for Lee Tomlin's clumsy bodycheck on Jordan Clarke: "Not one player complained to me. It was careless rather than reckless. My assistant [Jones] gave it at the same time as me. It's nice when they're straightforward like that."
At half-time, I take a wander on to the ground floor of a spotlessly clean and sparkling atrium. I consider purchasing a car - the impossibly gleaming claret red XF 2.2d Luxury model outside the Jaguar Club - but eventually decide that my expenses won't stretch to the £36,205 asking price.
Into the second half and Rathbone busies himself by checking the substitutes for jewellery or illegal footwear. He has little else to do, the managers are on their best behaviour. Assessor Fletcher, sitting among the guests and scouts behind the Posh dug-out, makes notes in his little black book, from which he will compile his report.
Then, in stoppage time at the end of stoppage time, McDermid experiences his nearly moment, when the fickle finger of fate and football almost pointed at him. A fraction of a second after he blows the final whistle, Clingan thunders a 30-yard shot goalwards - only for Posh goalkeeper Paul Jones to tip it on to the crossbar and over. Had it gone in, it would have been disallowed. Time was up. Cue, no doubt, Coventry uproar.
Perhaps similar to the furore caused by Clive Thomas, the Welsh referee, when Brazil were level at 1-1 with Sweden in a group match in the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina. As a late corner came over, Thomas blew for time - only for Brazil's Zico to head the ball into the net. The "goal" was disallowed, uproar ensued.
Clingan and some of his team-mates do mildly protest but it all ends in smiles as the players and officials troop off the pitch. Fletcher, 54, makes more notes and, back in the Legends Lounge, discusses Danny's display. "Overall, it was good," he says. "One or two minor points we'll talk about and look at but he's controlled the game well and the players have reacted well to his management of the game.
"But I'll speak to him about that incident at the end. He should have maybe delayed his final whistle. When I was coming through the ranks, I was always told to blow the final whistle when the ball was in the centre circle. Had the shot gone in, it would have caused Danny serious problems, both on the pitch and in the tunnel afterwards. The manager [Thorn] would have hit the roof as well. But the ball didn't go in, Danny struck a bit lucky there."
Fletcher leaves to brief McDermid, who eventually emerges from the Ricoh through the gaggle of autograph-hunters waiting by the players and officials entrance next to the casino. SatNav takes us in the wrong direction, towards the M6, but a swift U-turn and we're on track again for the city centre and M40. "So, Danny, what happened at the end?" I ask bravely.
McDermid is honest to a fault. "I just didn't see him [Clingan] behind me," he explains. "As the defender headed the ball away, I've blown my whistle. I'm looking towards the defender and the ball has gone over my head to the midfielder [Clingan]. But the whistle was blown before it got to him. So, technically, I've finished the game. It's over. But if the ball had hit the back of the net, there would have been mayhem, it would have all kicked off. I wouldn't have allowed the goal to stand, I couldn't.
"It was just a stupid moment and, when I got back to the dressing-room, I apologised to my colleagues for being such a plonker. I thought I'd had a good game and then that happened. I'm a perfectionist, I like to get everything right, but it's certainly a development point for me. The ball was definitely going in and it was a great save by the keeper. I think I owe him a pint!"
McDermid almost heads on to the M40 North. We want M40 South. He discloses that he is wearing compression tights, not a particularly macho admission for a tough-as-teak member of the Royal Logistics Corps but a vital aid to his post-match recovery. They help to push the blood through more quickly and get rid of the lactic acid.
An articulate and talkative character, only when recalling his memories of Afghanistan does McDermid appear reluctant to venture too deeply into detail. For members of the Forces, understandably, imparting too much information is not advised. He was based at Camp Bastion but had to travel to outlying locations, working in the equipment support area and looking after the materials for the vehicles and weapons in theatre.
"I ensured that supplies got to the right areas and in the right quantities," he said. "Was it dangerous? You're moving forward to where the insurgents are, into Helmand Province. But that's what you sign up for. In the Army, it's your job. Of course there was a bit of trepidation about going there. Things happen there, there are incidents all over the place. I feel for the families back home, especially of those guys on the frontline. They really do put their lives on the line. And the young lads, they grow up so quickly. They're all heroes, they really are.
"It's also a great shame for the general public there. They have had these wars for so many years and don't have any stability. I really hope that one day the country can settle down and people can live in peace and get on with their lives. A lot of heartache has happened over there and it would nice if that heartache could go away."
On the A34 just outside Oxford, we slow as a blue light flashes ahead. A car has spun, one of its tyres in shreds on the central reservation, and is facing the wrong way near the hard shoulder. "I was in a truck in Iraq that had a blow-out," Danny says. "It was a hell of a noise. I thought we were under attack."
Danny drops me off at Junction 12 on the M4 and heads for home, in Aldershot, and his family - wife Leanne, two-year-old Chloe and 15-week-old Abbey. They have since joined him in Cyprus. The following weekend, he made the 10-hour return flight to take charge of the match between Shrewsbury Town and Rotherham United; this weekend, another 4,000-plus miles by plane and car for Dagenham & Redbridge v Crawley Town. And at the end of the season - or after the Play-Offs - that will be it. It'll be over.
Medals are usually pinned on the lapels of those who go far and beyond the call of duty. Maj McDermid, step forward.