A version of this article was printed in the Prescot Cables programmes for the match against Radcliffe on January 26th, 2019. I am grateful to the St Helens Referees Society for some additional information which is included in this updated version.
Back in the black-and-white days of football, before the advent of the Premier League and wall-to-wall media coverage, the name of the match referee was usually listed in newspaper reports and match programmes along with his occupation and home town. Most of them seemed to come, not from our big cities, but from small towns and villages which, before Google maps, many people would struggle to locate. Many a small boy (or girl) growing up learned their geographical knowledge through football, knowing that Plymouth and Carlisle were a long way apart but Stoke City and Port Vale was a local derby, Tranmere Rovers and Everton were near Liverpool and that Mr Kevin Howley came from Billingham, Mr Maurice Fussey (surely one of the best ever names for a referee?) from Retford or Mr Norman Burtenshaw was from Great Yarmouth.
During the 1950s and 60s, one referee who promoted the name of Prescot in supporters minds up and down the country, was John “Jack” Mitchell, born in Prescot in 1920. He was on the Football League referees list for thirteen years from 1955 to 1967, and was appointed to the FIFA list in 1959. In 1959, the Liverpool Echo noted that “Mr. Mitchell usually fills his occasional Saturday free from League commitment by taking a Prescot or St. Helens junior match”. In common with a number of Football League officials at the time, he also refereed on many occasions in Northern Ireland and Eire.
Despite being a top class referee for more than a dozen years, I have been unable to find much documentation of his career. Mitchell’s playing days for Haydock in the Liverpool County Combination were cut short by injury, after which he took up refereeing.
In a Liverpool Echo feature shortly after he retired in 1967 Mitchell explained,
“I started refereeing when I had my jaw broken playing for a Haydock team against U.G.B. I was never quite fast enough to make a first class player. I’ve never regretted becoming a referee. My only injury when handling a match was two broken ribs after a collision with a player at Halifax. I didn’t know until mid-day on Sunday that the damage was so serious. I’m one of the few referees who’s never been k.o.’d by the ball or a player. One of the happiest games I took was the first floodlit match at Goodison Park [October 1957] – between Everton and Liverpool [before a crowd of more than 58,000 spectators – where he gained considerable praise for his performance]. There are no crowds quite so amusing as those found at Anfield or Goodison Park. Naturally, the home crowd is always a bit rough on any referee who gives a doubtful decision against one of their players, but in general, I’ve had no trouble at all with spectators.”
Mitchell ref’d the second leg of the last League Cup final to be played over two legs, in 1966, when West Bromwich Albion overturned a 2 – 1 deficit at The Hawthorns, to defeat West Ham United 5 – 3 on aggregate.
He recalled another match he officiated in Birmingham, “I was nearly late on one occasion when the engine of the train on which I was travelling broke down at Runcorn. I arrived in Birmingham twenty minutes before kick-off time, having changed into my gear in the toilet. If I’d been too late to take the match I would’ve gone into the League’s black books and there would’ve been a fine, amounting to the sum of my fee – 10 guineas and first class expenses.”
The Football League had a rule that all match officials had to retire on reaching their 47th birthday – for many when they were at the peak of their careers. Mitchell, himself, was clearly unhappy at being forced to retire.
“Being due for my forty-seventh birthday in August , I anticipated I should be hearing from the League. But I don’t mind telling you I hoped against hope that letter would not come. If my birthday had come a fortnight later I should have had one more season. “I think 47 is probably too early to retire a referee compulsorily, though there may be some referees who want retirement at that age.
“People seem to think the League pension retired referees. There isn’t any such scheme. We do get a letter of thanks from the League and mine is going to be one of my most prized souvenirs. The great thing about refereeing is that you make so many friends. Every Christmas I have sheaves of cards from fellow referees or linesmen or club officials who have become friends of mine.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time with the League. I’ve only had to send off a few players – four all told – and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had one of those ‘scenes’ of which the game gets too many nowadays. I shan’t stop refereeing, there will be matches in the St Helens area, but obviously life won’t be the same.
Appointment to the FA Cup Final is considered to the highest honour in the domestic game for any referee. Mitchell was not lucky enough to be selected for that. However, one may speculate that the success of Liverpool reaching the final in 1965, followed by Everton, the following year, may have mitigated against Mitchell being chosen in his final years as a top-class referee.
Finally, in the Echo feature, Mitchell had some interesting observations about the future of the game;
“I feel that a panel of retired referees, set to attend league games, would produce fairer marking for their successors than the existing system of clubs marking referees. They cannot be other than rather biased and influenced by the fate of their team.
“Is refereeing different now from when I started? I’m afraid the answer must be ‘yes’. Football’s become very commercialised. There’s too much money at stake. It isn’t nearly so pleasant as it used to be.”
I wonder what he would think of the state of the top levels of football, today?!
According to William Roberts of the St Helens Referees Society, Jack Mitchell worked in the Prescot Services Dept. of BICC for many years and retired from there in the late nineteen seventies. After hanging up his whistle, Jack Mitchell served for a spell as a Director of Prescot Cables Football Club in the late 1960s.