by Russell Kempson
Mondays are always enjoyable at King's Heath Boys' School in Birmingham, when the curriculum includes the exchange of gentle banter, respectful ribbing and the telling of tales of "what might have been" over the weekend. As the latest update of the school's Fantasy Football League is digested, Phil Gibbs, the Deputy Headteacher, is often at the centre of attention.
Occasionally, it is because of his secondary job as a Football League referee. If Phil has been involved in any on-pitch incidents and they have been highlighted on television, his pupils will let him know their views - in the nicest possible way, of course! Of more importance, though, is his standing in the fantasy league. His team - "The Ref Is Always Right" - is pounding along in second place in the table.
Gibbs laps it up. The wheels of education cannot turn without amicable interaction between the classroom and staffroom and football provides a mutually beneficial means to an end. "The boys love their football," Phil said. "And if they've seen me on 'The Football League Show' on Saturday night, they've usually got all sorts of questions they want to ask me. It's good fun discussing it all.
"We started the fantasy league only this season and it's great that my team are doing so well. The kids also have a laugh about that and I suppose it's a bit like fantasy coming to life. In my position and with my refereeing, you can use it as a tool for good. We foster an ethos of 'Respect' at King's Heath and our Respect campaign is all about improving behaviour, whether it be in the football world or at school.
"Teaching is not that different to refereeing. No day, no match, is ever the same and the unexpected is always around the corner. It can be about how you deal with parents when they come to see you or how you deal with players when it's a hard match and tough decisions are called for. Really, there just isn't much difference."
Gibbs has used his connections to bring Howard Webb, England's No.1 official and the World Cup final referee in South Africa, and Andre Marriner, his Premier League colleague, to King's Heath, an inner-city school that, in the past, has faced challenging circumstances. Both were well received as they spread the word of Respect and gave the students a more intimate insight into player-referee relations.
How to cope with setbacks and the big disappointments are part of life, too. Phil, now in his fourth season as a League referee, has had to confront them, no more than when failing his interview to become a man in the middle two years in succession. "I think that each failure strengthened me," he recalled. "It made me more determined and as I say to the lads at school: 'Never give up'."
Shortly after taking charge of the FA Sunday Cup final in 2008, in which Hetton Lyons Cricket Club beat Coundon Conservative 3-2 in a feisty contest at Anfield, Gibbs made it third time lucky. "The Anfield experience was a dream but then to get on the National List as well, at last, just capped a great year," he said.
It was the same persistence, the same steely attitude, that enabled 45-year-old Phil to complete the London Marathon in 1987. "I'll give anything and everything a go once," he said. "But never again. I didn't enjoy that one bit. But just to say you've done it is great."
Gibbs first gave it a go with the whistle when studying at the University of Gloucestershire, progressing through the Midland Combination, Midland Football Alliance and Conference and, at the same time, attaining his Uefa B coaching licence. Combining his refereeing and teaching duties can be difficult but, wherever he has had to travel for a midweek match, he can always be found at his desk at 7am the next day. "It's my way of giving a bit back," Phil said. "The school has been very supportive, and the governors are fantastic in giving me time off to referee, so I'm quite happy to put in that extra effort for them."
Having a supportive family - Rachel, Phil's wife, and daughters Jessica, 15, Bethany, 10, and Caitlin, 8 - also helps. "None of them have been to any of my games," he said. "My fear is that they would hear someone shouting something nasty at me. But I'd love to take them, just to show them why I can be away from the house for so long for a game that lasts only 90 minutes."
Phil's career is likely to last only three more years. "I've set myself that target," he said. "I'll know when to call it a day, when to let someone else have their opportunity. But, hopefully, I'll have done everything I wanted to and I will walk away a happy man."