By Russell Kempson
Contrary to an oft-held public perception, referees live and breathe football. So when one of their kind, a Football League stalwart, goes missing for two years, something must be up.
Perhaps he retired? Or, maybe succumbed to long-term injury or fell out of love with the sport? In the case of Keith Hill, those possibilities could not have been further from the truth.
Hill had effectively taken a two-year sabbatical - or maybe more of a busman's holiday - in Japan. To not only spread the gospel of English referees, who are revered the world over, but to train and develop his colleagues in the Far East so that, one day, they might also be able to reach the pinnacle of the global game.
In many ways, it was a humbling experience. "The general standard was very high, especially at the professional level because that's the only job they do," Hill said. "Just a bit of fine-tuning was needed. Further down, you're just trying to bring them on so that their standard is pushed up.
"The Japanese FA's head of refereeing had a vision of making his referees world class. With those in England having such a high skill set and profile, he felt that an Anglo influence was needed. I'm passionate about referees' development, I applied for the post and got it. It was a fantastic experience."
Not, though, without a few hiccups. Keith, 44, left for the Land of the Rising Sun in March 2011 but had to delay his trip by a week because of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that had devastated the country. "I was still keen to go," he said. "I'd made a commitment. The plane was almost empty when I flew there. At the time, it was not a top destination."
The language tested him, too. "I didn't want to rely on people speaking English or using sign language," he said. "You get a lot of credibility if you try to learn a few phrases and it is appreciated if you've made the effort, even if you get it wrong. I went online before I went out there to get a few basic phrases, just so I could be polite, get my point across or order food.
"Actually, the food was lovely. It was so varied and, yes, certainly unusual. At times, you felt as though you were taking part in a Bushtucker Trial. But once you got past the mental block of what you were eating - or what you thought you might be eating - it was fine."
Hill, a former sales manager and former FA regional referees' manager for East Anglia, returned to England in January. He could have stayed for another year, based in Tokyo and travelling all over the country by plane and bullet train, but hankered for the comforts of home, and wife Ilke, seven-year-old daughter Francesca and son Oliver, six. "I came back fairly regularly, and they came out, but I missed them terribly," Keith said. "Thankfully, Skype is a wonderful thing."
Wonderful, also, to again be travelling to matches all over England. If not by mile-high plane or high-speed train but, now, by car. At least he's back in the middle, back in black, where he loves to be. It is his 15th season as a Football League referee, quite a leap since, at the age of 15, he volunteered to run the line for St Thomas Colts, the team for whom his brother, Christopher, played in Hertfordshire. "No one would do it," Keith said. "So I had to."
Apart from Japan, Hill has also spread the refereeing word - again training and developing - in Dubai, South Africa, Ecuador, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. His planned four-week stint in Saudi in 2010 turned into six due to the ash cloud emanating from Iceland and the subsequent flight delays.
And not forgetting his five-day trip to Afghanistan, either, where he lived with the British Army troops, trained the local referees and assisted Peter Jones, the former top-flight English referee, when he took charge of the Game of Unity in Kabul in 2002. "On so many levels, it was just so great to be involved out there," Keith said. "We were warned of the dangers and, apparently, we were shot at as we took off in the plane to come home. To be fair, I didn't think that Peter had had that bad a game."
An alarming moment, nonetheless, and surreal also. A bit like when he cautioned a player - a certain Keith Hill, the former Rochdale player and now manager at Spotland. "He said to me, 'I don't think you have to ask me my name'," Hill, the referee, said. "It was like booking myself and, of course, I had to report my own name. That was rather unusual."
Unusual, too, that, with all his experience, he has yet to officiate at Wembley Stadium in any capacity. Not that he's given up yet.
"You have to have an ambition and that's mine. I've still got a lot I want to achieve. It's every player's dream to play at Wembley and it's no different for a referee. You only get an appointment there if you've earnt it. And I aim to earn it."