It is 27 years since the world came up with the phrase Fergie Time – and the man at the centre of it all was a Stoke City fan from Weston Coyney.
John Hilditch spoke to John Woodhouse about it all – and his colourful life in football and relationship with Parkinson’s – back in 2015.
“The worst thing you can do with any illness is go home, put your head in your hands, and say ‘why me?’”
John Hilditch is considering his relationship with Parkinson’s. He’s not a man to take things lying down. Well, as a linesman you have to be tough.
“I always remember at West Brom,” he says, “halfway along the stand there was a woman, quite elderly, and the abuse she used to give you – unbelievable. She’d put a docker to shame.”
Even more so when you’re brought on to referee in what turns out to be one of the most infamous games of all time, the one that coined the phrase ‘Fergie time’.
This was 1993, the first time Alex Ferguson made Manchester United champions of England, a trophy that might never have materialised without a famous comeback victory over Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in the title run-in.
John, from Weston Coyney, had started the game, as always, as linesman, but took over with half an hour to go when referee Mike Peck was injured.
Within minutes, he gave a penalty to the away side, sparking a frenzied fightback from United, which resulted in Steve Bruce scoring just before the 90 minutes and then deep into some 7mins, 15secs of injury time, sparking memorable scenes of the United management team leaping on to the pitch.
Those 435 added seconds are seen as some of the most treasured in the club’s history. Others don’t quite share the feeling.
“Sheffield Wednesday were using time-consuming tactics,” John defends himself. “Then came the magical 7mins, 15secs. People always think the two goals came in that time. They didn’t. People think I just played on and on until they scored. I didn’t. It looks as though I’d blown up when they’d won. I hadn’t.
“People say that was the start of ‘Fergie Time’. Although he thought there should actually have been 12 minutes!”
“Richie Barker,” he adds, “the former Stoke manager, and assistant manager at Sheffield Wednesday, he never forgave me. But everybody’s got a viewpoint.
“It’s not hurtful,” reflects the 66-year-old of the controversy, “because I know the truth.”
After 13 years as a league linesman, officiating at games homes and abroad, including the Liverpool v Sunderland FA Cup Final of 1992, John hung up the flag.
But he’s remained ever active in the game, now assessing other referees within the football pyramid, a duty he’s maintained despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition causing tremor, rigidity, and slowness of movement.
“The first thing I noticed,” he recalls, “was my middle finger twitching, but you just put it down to tension. But my wife also noticed I’d fall asleep at the drop of a hat.
“I finally went to the doctors, and when he said ‘right, OK, Parkinson’s’ it didn’t come as a shock because it was one of the thing we’d discussed it might be.
“It is,” he says, “what it is.”
Stoicism is all very well, but it can’t always hide natural human emotion.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says John, “there’ve been odd days where I’ve thought ‘I just wish I hadn’t got it’. But I joke about it and give talks. The first thing I do is open with a few one-liner jokes about it – ‘don’t let me have soup when I have a meal’, that kind of thing. It breaks the ice. It just prepares people for it. It makes them relaxed.”
A man for whom fitness has always been important, John is an advocate for exercise in slowing the symptoms of the illness.
“I want to promote the fitness side,” he says, slightly frustrated at a lack of opportunity to do so.
“I’d like to get out and show the positives. Going to the gym, that helps a lot. I run and do weights.”
John was never going to let Parkinson’s place a barrier between the things he loves in life, be they family or sport.
He knows the value of battle and graft – the proof is in the places football has taken him.He recalls a big European match, Porto vs Bayern – “a huge bowl, 90,000 capacity, concrete steps”.
“We came out the tunnel,” he recalls, “and the hairs on the back of my neck went up. I thought ‘a Stoke-on-Trent lad, in front of all these people’.”
Not that such heights were always a given. John recalls a certain embarrassing incident in a Staffs Cup replay where he failed to notice a Jack Russell cross called Susie had scored a goal, running on to the pitch and diverting the ball into the net.
“Next day,” he notes, “Saint and Greavsie was on TV and my wife said ‘you’d better come down and listen to this’. They were on about it on there. That was it all day then.“Thing is, four or five years later I was running the line at the Cup Final. Everybody in their career has something go wrong. You’ve just got to recover from it.”
Wembley was a defining moment.
“It’s the build-up and the afterwards at a Cup Final,” he explains. “During the game, and it sounds a cliché, it’s 90 minutes football. If you start thinking ‘my god, where am I?’ your performance is going to suffer.
“I was nervous, what you don’t need to be is overly nervous, because if you haven’t got that butterfly in your stomach you could become complacent, arrogant. There may be some people who think I am arrogant, but hopefully I’m not that way. I may be brash and forward with my views but I’m not arrogant.”
Certainly, as a linesman you have to put up with a lot.
“The old Baseball Ground at Derby,” he recalls, “kids used to flick cinder at you. They’d always get you between your sock and your thigh.”Adults aren’t always much easier.
“I saw this chap at Kidsgrove,” he reports, “and he was terrible. I don’t mind people moaning at referees or whatever, it can even be comical, but this referee had done nothing wrong. It was just a torrent of unnecessary abuse. It was venomous. I can’t understand that at all.
“There’s going to be people who dislike you,” he reflects, “in any part of life, but the majority, I’d like to think they gave me respect. In the end we were always able to go for a pint and a chat about the game. I think that’s partly what’s missing at the moment in local football. I couldn’t referee now in Sunday morning football. I was aggressive verbally, there’s this attitude now ‘you can’t talk to me in that way’ – they just abuse you.
“I just find it strange that you’re expected to take abuse but you can’t give it back. I’m afraid it’s modern life.”It’s a job where, quite clearly, one needs a limitless supply of self-control.
“Am I patient? No, but I believe I can man-manage people. I had quite a vocal style and players generally appreciated it – they appreciated the fact I was willing to enter into banter. “Some players need an arm putting round them, others you need to show them you’re the boss, and there’s another type who might not listen anyway.”
These days John, a lifelong Stoke City fan – well, almost, he was born a Valiant – is more than happy to talk football with anyone, although possibly not wife Pat.
“She’s not a football fan by any means – she’s accepted it’s my mistress.”
But others are more than happy to take up the invitation.
“A lot of people remember me for the Cup Final,” he says. “The banter’s great about the Man Utd thing too. If you meet Man Utd fans they love you. But Man Utd have also got a lot of people who dislike them, and they say something the opposite!”
When all’s said and done, John can look back on this sporting life with satisfaction. The next chapter may present a different challenge, but it’s one he’ll meet with typical good humour and determination.
“I’ve got no regrets,” he says. “I’ve got things I wish I’d done, like run the line at Barcelona, got in the middle as a Football League referee, but it wasn’t to be. I accept what was given to me. It’s part of my history, and it’s a good part.”