By Russell Kempson

Football can be intense, especially for a referee.

The man in the middle needs eyes in the back of his head, negotiating skills that would earn him a top rank in the diplomatic corps and the patience of a saint. But never - as a somewhat famous manager once suggested - is it the be all and end all.

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude," Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool boss, said. "I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Darren Drysdale, a Football League referee, may beg to differ.

Darren, in his day job, is an RAF Sergeant. The matter of life and death may not have affected him on a benign two-year posting in Gibralter, nor directly, either, when the Human Resources officer served during the freedom of Libya conflict, which ended 13 months ago. He was based in the relative safety of Cyprus, from which air strikes were launched.

But rewind to Iraq, in 2003, and the full horrors of war hit home. When football, refereeing; everything was placed in perspective. Starkly, sometimes distressingly.

Drysdale was out there on a four-month deployment, along with his wife Wendy, who is a Corporal in HR recruitment preparing the UK troops for the front-line. An additional concern for Darren, so close to the theatre of battle.

"It was probably the lowest point in my life," he recalled.

"I processed the prisoners of war and the bombs were dropping left, right and centre. You just couldn't help but wonder; 'has the next one got my name on it?' You couldn't see an end to it.

"Every day felt like three days. It was very stressful."

Sport, in comparison, pales into insignificance. Yet Drysdale, a 24-year RAF veteran, has always maintained an equanimity amid his divided passions - work, family and football. And not necessarily in that order.

It's been tough, at times, to retain that fine balance between the three but he has coped. Just.

"It's like juggling three glass balls," he said. "You just hope that one doesn't fall and shatter." None have.

Based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, the home of the new and revolutionary Eurofighter Typhoon jet, 41-year-old Darren loves his work, despite all the stress it sometimes brings.

"No, I'm not a pilot," he said. "That's the first question that everyone asks me. I just say I fly a desk."

His family also gets plenty of attention. Wife Wendy, who he describes as his rock, and their sons - Ben, four, and Leo, 13 months, as well as 13-year-old Liam from Darren's first marriage.

And of course, not forgetting his refereeing. It is a huge slice of his life and which started at the age of 15 when his father, Jim - a player-turned-referee due to injury - pleaded one Sunday morning: "Can you just run the line?"

Drysdale did, and has never looked back.

"I knew that the level of football was far superior to anything I could dream of playing at.

"I was amazing in my own head yet there always seemed to be a communication error on the way to my feet. But I still play a bit of five-a-side."

No miscommunication with the whistle, though. Darren progressed through the Northern Leagues and Northern Premier League, the Blue Square North and Blue Square Premier.

He made his first appearance on The Football League line in 1996, the Premier League line two years later, and received regular appointments as a UEFA and FIFA assistant as well. It was then on to The Football League as a referee in 2004.

Along the way, Darren assisted Graham Poll in the 2000 FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Aston Villa, which Chelsea won 1-0 in the last final to be played at the old Wembley Stadium.

"I watched the finals as a kid," Darren said, "and to be able to one day walk up to the Twin Towers; well, it was like Roy of the Rovers.

"I'll treasure that memory forever."

So, too, when he was voted the Combined Services Sports Official of the Year in 2003. At the time, Darren was serving in Iraq.

His mother and father collected the award for him from the Princess Royal at the RAF Club in London and, on his return to England, he was re-presented with the gong in the capital.

"That was fantastic," he said. "For myself and the whole family."

Football? A matter of life and death? Drysdale wouldn't agree with that.

And what about another Shankly saying: "The trouble with referees is that they know the rules but they don't know the game."

No, Darren would not subscribe to that one, either - sorry, Shanks.