by Russell Kempson, The Times
Paul Taylor felt quietly satisfied with his first match as a Football League Referee and, as he left the Priestfield Stadium, a young lad of about seven years old approached him. The conversation went thus:
Young lad, thrusting forward a scrap of paper: "Can I have your autograph?"
PT: "I'm not a player. I was the referee."
YL: "I know, Mr Taylor. Can I have your autograph?"
Taylor signs: "To Kevin, Best wishes, Paul Taylor, Gillingham v Darlington, 1989". [PT later recalls: 'I had an ego the size of a small planet. The lad must have been nearly eight by the time I'd finished and given it back to him.']
YL, accepting scrap of paper: "Thanks ... and my dad says you were bloody rubbish."
YL runs off down the street; PT is left agog.
Such is the life of a League referee; such is the rollercoaster of emotion, the highs, the lows, the inbetweens and the absolute pits. Taylor has experienced them all and, as he moves closer towards the conclusion of his second "extended" season, he realises that, perhaps at last, the end is nigh.
"I think I've retired about four times now," he said. "Maybe some people think I should have retired. But I'd like to finish at the top of my game. I'd hate to go on for one season too many, a bit like a boxer who has one fight too many.
"I'll be honest. I'm going to some grounds now thinking: 'This is my last time here'. I'll probably be making a decision in the next month or so and I know that the League will be identifying those assistants who they want to invite to become referees.
"It would be unfair on everyone, to take up a place that one of the up-and-comers could have. Older refs like me, you've got to make way at some stage. There has to be a natural 'churn'. When I got on the list, I was 29, the youngest; now, at 50, I'm the oldest."
If Taylor, a Human Resources Manager with Royal Mail, is known as the "Father of the House", it is Father Time who is catching up with him. Yet his recollections are crystal clear - from when he first took up the whistle, in 1978, to when he joined the Football League as an assistant in 1986; from his upgrade to referee three years later to his demotion from the Premier League, after only one campaign, in 2001.
From his days in Europe as Fourth Official for Dynamo Kiev versus Red Star Belgrade in a Champions League qualifier - "To wear the Three Lions on your chest, a brand respected the world over, was incredible" - to his days on the international scene, Nigeria versus Venezuela at Vicarage Road. Not forgetting a host of League Play-Off Finals also, at the old Wembley, the Millennium Stadium and the new Wembley.
Not bad for the American literature and film graduate from Warwick University; pretty good, actually, for the graduate in hard knocks from the Herts County and Isthmian Leagues. "I went to a rugby school and was rubbish at it," Taylor, who is based in Hertfordshire, said. "I wanted to play football at university but was rubbish at that, too. More often than not I was a sub and I got fed up standing on the line for 70 minutes in the freezing cold.
"So I'd run up and down with the flag to keep warm and I soon realised that, instead of having to put £2 in the kitty as a player, I could earn maybe £12-£15 as a referee. If you did several games, it could go up to £60 for a weekend, which was really good money for a student. I always thought I had something to offer the game. It started off as a hobby and became a second career.
"Every player, manager or referee goes through lean spells. It happens in every job. But when you have challenging times, you have to dig in. If you give up when the going gets tough, it's probably not the job for you, anyway. I've never let any incidents make me want to stop.
"I was never quite sure why I wasn't retained by the Premier League but, no, I wasn't disappointed. I did about 12 matches, I'd refereed in the greatest league in the world. That is not an opportunity afforded to too many. Over the years, I'd like to think I've provided a service to the game. I've had a great time and, when it is time to go, I will take with me some marvellous memories."
Especially that of cheeky Kevin, aged 7, from Kent.