The half-century Norfolk referee who refuses to see red

For five decades Donny Nichols has been keeping football matches in order and his cards in his pocket in leagues across Norfolk.

The long-serving referee has sent off just 12 players in hundreds of games and last Monday he was honoured by the Referees' Association for his long service.

His love for football began as a boy and he went on to play at right back for his army side in the Ordnance Corps.

But in the late Fifties his regiment played a team from the Medical Corps and he came off worst in a tackle.

The medic who damaged Mr Nichols' right knee later operated on it for him, but he could no longer kick a football and decided to become a referee.

In one of his first matches in 1961 Mr Nichols' wife came to watch him referee on Mousehold Heath but she went home in tears before the game was over.

'She's only seen me referee once and came home and cried because I took a bit of stick that day,' he said. 'I had a bit of a lively one from the crowd.'

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The Heartsease grandad has felt the wrath of a player just once in 25 years. The 75-year-old said: 'He was stood in front of me and was being sent off and he knew that.

'He was foaming at the mouth and I thought, 'here comes the smack and smoke'. I said, 'don't even think about going down that road.' He calmed down enough.

'There was always a bit of abuse but you took it and dealt with it.

'It's harder to referee in the present day than it was in my day because the attitude of players has changed. A good referee can still deal with it. The ones who don't get taken to the cleaners.

'Crowds get on your back but television proves referees right more times than wrong.'

Mr Nichols went on to referee in the Eastern Counties and Football Combination leagues and was linesman at the testimonials at Carrow Road of Albert Bennett and Dave Stringer.

He joined the Referees' Association in 1960 and has been vice-chairman, chairman, president and was honoured by the Norwich Sports Council in 1992 for his contribution to sport.

Mr Nichols' biggest crowd was at Highbury for Arsenal Reserves when star player Charlie George returned from injury and 14,000 showed up to see their hero.

'It was lovely going to all these grounds,' he said.

The keen golfer rates the players of his generation as more skilful than today's multi-millionaires.

In 1988 at the age of 51 his recurring knee injury meant he had to stop running the lines.

But he did not hang up his whistle.

Mr Nichols, who worked for May Gurney for 38 years, now assesses and trains referees and can be found at the edge of a Norfolk football pitch every Saturday.

'I watch and help them now all the way through the county's league,' he said.

And son Stephen followed in his father's footsteps, taking his referee qualification without telling his dad.

'I have enjoyed all my time in football,' he said. 'It's a way of life for me, my wife and son.'

Last Monday Mr Nichols who lives on Colls Road, Heartsease, was honoured by the Referees' Association for his 50 years of service at a dinner with Premier League Referee Peter Walton and association chairman Alan Poulain. 'It was absolutely brilliant,' he said.

The great-grandad was also given an award in memory of best friend and former chairman, Michael Blackburn, who died last year.

Richard Pace, chairman of Norwich Referees' Society, said: 'I am delighted that the Referees' Association has recognised the outstanding length of continuous membership that Donny has achieved.

'Many generations of referees and players have benefited from Donny's enthusiasm and passion for football.'