Stanley Whittaker - the 83 year old football referee from New Mills
PUBLISHED: 11:12 08 January 2018
Andrew Griffiths meets Stanley Whittaker, who has been refereeing amateur football in and around New Mills for 63 years – and counting.
It had been a pleasant Monday morning stroll through town, one lit by thin sunshine, a surprising and welcome warmth given that autumn was just starting to hint in the colour of leaves.
Now I was sitting in the neat front room of Stanley Whittaker’s New Mill’s bungalow, where he was telling me about his lifetime as a junior football referee in the local leagues. And at the age of 83 and still putting on his boots and packing a whistle and a red card, some life it has been.
‘I’ve still been doing a little bit but not as much,’ Stanley tells me, sitting neatly in the armchair opposite, a coffee table with my voice recorder glowing red between us. ‘If anyone has asked, I’ve done my best and helped out. I can’t do the same as what I used to do, but I’ve still got it up here!’ He taps the side of his head defiantly. ‘It’s just physical. You get to a certain age and you slow up. But I still love my football.’
I was first formally introduced to Stanley Whittaker when he was a sprightly 78-year-old. The circumstances were strange. I was covering a junior football story for my local newspaper and Stanley was – and I hope he will forgive me for saying this – just some old bloke I recognised as we often bumped into each other as he shuffled around my home town of New Mills. Usually I would meet him at the Co-op on Albion Road. This seemed less of a coincidence when I found out that he visits the store at least three times a day, often shopping for elderly friends and acquaintances who can’t get out themselves.
So I was not unduly surprised when I saw him that freezing cold February morning on the touchline at the Ollersett football pitch. A little off his patch, I thought, but I was not unduly surprised. We nodded, and I assumed he had a grandson – or maybe a great grandson – on the pitch.
But then the strangest thing happened. He took off his coat, and beneath it was revealed a pristine, black referee’s shirt, complete with notebook and whistle accessories. Next, despite the bitter cold, a pair of equally neat black shorts. It was then I noticed the football boots.
But the change went beyond the merely sartorial. His posture straightened, there was a new – dare I say it, mean – glint in his eye, a new purpose to his step. There was something truly transformational about it, the butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Stanley Whittaker was home.
Stan has been refereeing amateur football for 63 years. Born in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1934 and into the Great Depression, times were hard for a family of five children. Hard times were made harder still when his mother died. Stan, the youngest, was six months old, and it left his father to bring up five children single-handedly.
When Stan blows his final whistle on the Ollersett fields on a Saturday and the children go home to play ‘shoot ‘em up’ games on their computers, it is a sobering thought that at their age, Stan was standing terrified in an Ashton street beside his father, listening to Doodlebugs buzzing overhead.
‘I remember my Dad saying to me: “It’s all right, as long as that engine’s going, it’s OK,”’ remembers Stan. ‘But as soon as it cut out, it would dive down.’
One time an engine did cut out, and a row of houses was taken out in the neighbouring town of Oldham.
Stan refereed his first game of football when he was 20. ‘I used to go and watch these matches, then one time the referee didn’t turn up and someone asked if I’d like to do it? And ever since then that’s what I’ve done,’ Stan tells me. ‘I was interested in the moves of football, the passing, and I took it to my heart and that was it.’
Something has always puzzled me about Stanley though. I would expect refereeing to be something somebody went into when they were getting too old to play, to keep an involvement with the game. But at 20 – what was the appeal?
Stan pauses then tries to explain. ‘It was the joy of doing it, having to make a decision, the responsibility, because that is how I was brought up. My father had a lot on his plate bringing five of us up on his own. If he said anything, well, I did it, because of the situation,’ Stan continues. ‘And that is what I’ve always brought to the field of play. There’s only one boss, the gaffer, and that’s me. And I make the decisions right or wrong. That’s what I believe in, the old-fashioned way of refereeing.’
Stan came to New Mills in 1966, that iconic year for English football. A butcher by trade all his life, he began as a delivery boy at 14. A big Manchester United fan, he never actually got to see them play as a boy. ‘I always wanted to go but I never pushed, because I knew my dad didn’t have the money,’ he says.
The Busby babes was his favourite United team. He reels off a few of the names – Eddie Coleman, Billy Whelan and Duncan Edwards, who in Stan’s opinion is one of the greatest players there has ever been. He is less enamoured with some of the antics in the professional modern game. ‘What I don’t like is all the money paid to players,’ he says. ‘Too much money. It doesn’t do them any good, it has ruined a lot of good players. I don’t have to name them, do I? Best, for one… too much money.’
I pointed to the big TV screen in the corner of Stan’s room, and asked him if what happens on the screen influences the children he referees on the park. ‘What the main players do in football is always reflected back by the children,’ says Stanley. ‘Shirt pulling. I see a lot of that.’
New Mills is a strange place. Despite being an industrial town – still so in many ways and certainly by its legacy – and only a 30 minute train ride from the centre of Manchester, it has retained a close sense of community and loyalty, the kind of spirit that has been lost from so many of our larger conurbations. It is not unusual for Stanley to be refereeing games where the fathers of the players on the pitch were once out there themselves, playing under Stanley’s watchful eye.
‘I’ve said to some of the lads, “I’ve refereed your father you know, and he’s had a couple of cards!”’ says Stanley.
Stanley is a part of – and acknowledges – that sense of community, but is concerned that the parents’ enthusiasm and loyalty remains unrewarded by the powers that be. He is scathing about the lack of facilities for amateur football in the local area, particularly the playing field at Ollersett.
‘It is about time we had facilities in New Mills. It is an absolute disgrace and it is about time something was done,’ says Stanley. ‘They’ve got the money in the sports council. It’s about time they thought about these little places. Never mind your big towns, it is just as important for football in these small places as anywhere else. We haven’t even got a changing room at Ollersett. When people come here, what must they think when they have to change on the ground when it is not nice weather?’
But it is the sense of community that binds the town of New Mills to its amateur football, and embraces real enthusiasts such as Stanley Whittaker at its heart. While he has refereed in other local leagues nearby, it is New Mills that is his first love. The parents and players here all call him ‘their referee’, he tells me proudly. The sense of belonging is palpable.
‘It’s been my life, and I’ve enjoyed it,’ he says. Football. It’s a simple game at heart.