By Russell Kempson
It was a moment that Geoff Eltringham will never forget - when he had to forgo one of his major passions and possessions, snubbing the love of his life - when he had to bid farewell to his red and white heroes, giving up his cherished Sunderland season ticket.
Sadly, a case of needs must. Eltringham, 20 at the time, was progressing nicely in his fledgeling career with the whistle but following his beloved Sunderland, home and away, and also refereeing on Sunday mornings just didn't stack up any more. Too time consuming, too tiring - something had to give.
"It was hard," Geoff recalled. "At the time, I was devastated. Yet only in the short term, really. It was the best decision I've ever made and I've never regretted it for one minute. I hadn't been taking refereeing that seriously over the first few years but that had all changed.
"I was refereeing a park match and an assessor, Malcolm Langley, turned up to watch a different game. He watched a bit of my match as well and, when we got chatting afterwards, he said that maybe I should go for promotion. He set me on my way and we've become very good friends."
Eltringham had already accepted that, at 5ft 7in, he was hardly going to make it as a goalkeeper.
"I was more suited to five-a-side than 11-a-side," he said. "But I was always the daft lad of the bunch who ended up between the sticks.
"Neil Travis, one of my former school teachers, recommended a referees' course to go on. I went on it and really enjoyed it."
So much so that Geoff's upward path continued - and at pace - through the Russell Foster Tyne and Wear Youth League, Northern and UniBond leagues and then, the Blue Square North and Blue Square Premier.
In 2008, he was appointed on to The Football League list as an assistant. Just a year later, he was upgraded to referee. Now 32, he is in his fourth season in the middle.
Joining the League ranks delighted him, "it was the biggest achievement in my life, it was fantastic," Eltringham said.
It was, though, not without a few butterflies in the stomach, when he raised his flag for the first time in a match between Rochdale and Wycombe Wanderers.
"I was a bit nervous," Eltringham said. "And it was the first time my parents [Geoff Sr and Carol] had come to watch me in a match. In fact, it's the only time they've watched me.
"But I had a couple of other North East officials with me, which was great, and the game was ideal for me to get started. Nothing controversial and no one talking about me. Perfect."
Twelve months later and Geoff, after taking charge of just nine matches in the hard school of knocks that is the Blue Square Premier, took up the League whistle.
"Almost all of those games were a bit blood and thunder," he said. "But perhaps you need matches like that to get you noticed.
"I learnt a lot that season and to be appointed on to the National List was huge for me. It totally eclipsed what had happened to me the year before. It was a short apprenticeship but a very enjoyable one. It was my ultimate goal when I began refereeing and I'd got there."
Eltringham, a sales rep for a Sunderland-based timber firm, has not finished yet. For two years, he has been a member of the League's Talent Group, which identifies potential in referees and allows them to train and be coached alongside their elite Premier League cousins.
"It gives us every chance to move up to the Select Group," Geoff said. "That's the next step. But it's not put on plate, it's up to us to do it.
"There's a lot of hard work ahead and you have to keep your feet on the ground. But if I got the call, I'd go for it. Now that really would be the ultimate. And giving up my day job would be an easy decision to make."
Geoff keeps his feet on the ground, anyway, as chairman of the Sunderland Referees' Association and a director of the Durham FA Referees' Academy for up-and-coming 16 to 25-year-olds.
And, if he should stray out of line, his fiancee Emma will keep him in check, especially as she accepted Geoff's proposal only a fortnight ago.
"It was our second anniversary together and we went out for a quiet meal on the outskirts of Durham.
"I asked Emma when we got to the cheeseboard, which I'm not sure is that romantic, and she was a bit taken aback. But she did say yes, which was a relief. There's no date for the wedding yet, but I think I've got over the main hurdle."
A marriage to be made in heaven, no doubt. And were Eltringham to tie the knot as a Select Group official, the loss all those years ago of his prized season ticket with Sunderland - the other love of his life, sorry Emma - will suddenly seem a sacrifice that was well worth making.