THE BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to famed sports artist Paul Trevillion
For the good of my hearing, I held the phone receiver momentarily away from my ear.
PHWEET...PHWEET...PHWEET...went Paul Trevillion as he blasted a few short, sharp whistles down the line.
‘What do you think, Craig? Do you think I’ve got the football referee’s whistle off to a tee?’ – the great sports artist enquired.
As Trevillion expelled another rapid gust of air between his teeth and through his cupped lips, I was inclined to agree.
‘Yes’, I replied. ‘It’s a pretty good impersonation of a referee’.
‘Keith Hackett thinks so too’, Trevillion added.
I certainly was not expecting to hear the sound of Trevillion whistling as he explained the origins of ‘You Are the Ref’.
The popular comic strip, which puts the reader in the shoes of a referee, has been a football institution – on and off – for the past 60-plus years.
It was in the early 1950s when the young Trevillion, who was making a name for himself as a budding artist with a penchant for drawing sports stars in action, began posting refereeing dilemmas – alongside appropriate illustrations – in a comic strip in the Tottenham Hotspur fans’ magazine ‘The Lillywhite’.
The footballing conundrums proved to be a big hit among the White Hart Lane faithful – and the strip’s popularity grew to such an extent that Trevillion decided to take his creation to a national audience.
Subsequently, it appeared for a full season as a single column strip in the Sunday People – and soon pricked the ears of the editor at the renowned national children’s football magazine – Shoot.
‘You Are The Ref’ went on to feature regularly in both publications in the 1960s and 1970s before being discontinued in 1983. However, it was revived in 2006 when Trevillion agreed to its return online in the Observer, where it continues to the present day.
Working alongside some of the country’s top officials, which include Stan Lover and Clive Thomas initially and currently Keith Hackett, Trevillion has had a wonderful time illustrating situations – from the straight forward to the downright bizarre – a referee could find themselves in on a football pitch.
But as Trevillion reveals, his ingenius idea stemmed from the time he started mimicking the referee’s whistle while playing as a goalkeeper for Tottenham Boys.
“I would get so angry and frustrated when strikers used to score past me when I knew they were offside,” Trevillion said. “The referees were never up with play and it used to make me really upset.
“So I decided to spend the whole summer perfecting the referee’s whistle.
“So the following season when I played during a game and there was a player in an offside position – I would whistle.
“I could do it with my head down so nobody could tell it was me.
“When I whistled, the striker would stop and turn around and say to the ref, ‘What’s that for?’ to which the ref would say, ‘Play on, play on – I never whistled’.
“By that time, I had run out picked up the ball and all confusion had reigned.
“I can still do the whistle now and I’ve whistled to Keith Hackett – he thinks it’s the nearest thing he’s heard to a referee’s whistle.
“Anyway going back to when I played for Tottenham Boys, one of my schoolteachers finally cottoned on that it was me who was the phantom whistler and eventually said to me one day, ‘Why don’t you become a referee’?
“So I learned all the laws and I decided to referee a game.
“I only refereed one game because I just couldn’t do it.
“It’s one of the hardest jobs in the world.
“Even though I could never be a referee myself, I became fascinated with referees and how they did their job.”
Armed with his inquisitive referee’s brain,Trevillion began to throw in a few refereeing teasers in ‘The Lillywhite’ – and the rest is, as they say, history.
“It was because of my links with Tottenham that I began doing a strip in ‘The Lillywhite’.
“I would do some illustrations and a quiz.
“The quiz would be made up of questions about Tottenham players, but I would also throw in a few referee questions.
“Bill Nicholson, who was the great manager of Tottenham at the time, was a qualified referee and he used to read ‘The Lillywhite’.
“He came up to me one day and said, ‘Paul, I love what you do in ‘The Lillywhite’, but the quiz questions...you should do more referee questions.
“The fans can answer all the questions about the Tottenham players, but they don’t know the answers to the referee ones’.
“So I started doing more questions on referees.
“Bill used to give me some terrific questions as well.
“It got to the stage where the strip was just entirely referee questions and I just thought this is a great idea.
“So I went to the Sunday People with the idea and initially it was called ‘Hey Ref!’.
“They ran it as a single strip every Sunday for a full season.
“I then got a call from Shoot magazine asking if I could do a strip for them and they wanted five questions with drawings.
“They also said that they didn’t like the name ‘Hey Ref’.
“I thought the name was perfect because what’s the first thing a player says when he thinks he’s being fouled or the whistle should be blown?...HEY REF!
“But they insisted on changing the name and that’s when I came up with ‘You Are The Ref’.
“It really kicked-off when it appeared in Shoot.
“Kids would be writing in with questions...saying they went to a match at the weekend and this happened.
“We would be getting 40 or 50 questions per week and I would have to pick out the best and answer them.
“It was at that stage that I said to the editor at Shoot that we had better get a referee on board to help answer the questions.
“So Stan Lover was the first to do it – then Clive Thomas.
“Then we moved on to the ultimate and that’s Keith Hackett.
“Stan and Clive used to take their time answering, but Keith answers the questions straight away – like a referee would.”
Trevillion admits some of the weirdest occurrences ever to have happened on a football pitch have already been featured in the strip – although there have been times when he’s thrown one question in the bin and – lo and behold – the scenario arises the week after.
“We had the balloon one which happened at Sunderland against Liverpool,” he said.
“When somebody threw a beach balloon on the pitch and the ball went in off the balloon.
“That happened didn’t it at the Stadium of Light? We featured that one in the strip before it happened.
“There are ones which have got away – like the one this season when the ref sent off the wrong guy in the match between Chelsea and Arsenal.
“We got the question but Keith said that would never happen because there are so many systems in place that a ref would never make that mistake, but it happened.
“It sometimes works that way – you win some, you lose some.”
Trevillion has spent a lifetime combining his amazing drawing ability with his keen interest in sport.
He has drawn virtually every sporting great there has ever been – from footballing superstars such as Preston North End’s greatest Sir Tom Finney to the best from the world of golf, boxing and cricket.
One of his finest works was ‘The Gary Player Golf Class’ – a masterclass which appeared in more than 1,500 newspapers worldwide and is still the largest syndicated sports feature in the world.
While Trevillion – who is nicknamed the ‘Master of Movement’ for the way he can depict sports stars in action – has focused mostly on sport, he has also had the opportunity to draw other prominent people – including arguably Britain’s greatest ever leader, Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“I was born in Tottenham in 1934 so I’m a boy from the blitz,” Trevillion revealed. “Winston Churchill made a big impression on me.
“The Second World War was a terrible time. I would never say, ‘See you tomorrow’ to my friends because you would never knew might happen.
“Going into school, our teacher would do the register and if somebody wasn’t in school that day, we would say a prayer for them.
“So Churchill was our wartime leader and he made a big impression on me during my childhood. “I always remember him having a big smile on his face.
“In 1954 Graham Sutherland did a portrait of Churchill on his 80th birthday.
“But poor old Winston hated it...so much so that he put it in his cellar and when he died, it’s believed his wife cut it up into a thousand pieces.
“I just thought his 80th birthday has been ruined so the next year, I did a drawing of him as I remembered him during the war with a smile on his face.
“All the portraits of him always had him with a serious face, but this was our great leader who had beaten Germany and Hitler.”
After sending the portrait to Churchill, Trevillion was summoned to see the former prime minister.
“Churchill said my picture should be in the National Portrait Gallery and he actually signed my drawing – the only time he has ever signed a portrait of himself,” Trevillion said.
As well being a stand-up comedian and raconteur, who has supported funnymen such as Bob Monkhouse and Norman Wisdom, Trevillion has also worked on a comic strip with ex-PNE star and Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.
Interestingly, in the 1970s, he was hired by Leeds United boss Don Revie in an attempt to improve the Elland Road club’s image.
Some of his ideas included wearing numbered sock tags – which were subsequently thrown into the crowd as souvenirs – and synchronised warm-ups.
He has also caught the attention of the Royal family – most notably the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip – as a teenager
“When I was 15, I was at college and I won a gold medal which meant I got to go to Mansion House where Prince Philip was doing a speech for his Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme,” he said.
“I did a sketch of the prince in the programme and as I was leaving, I was stopped by one of the ushers, who thought I had been making notes.
“He requested to have a look at my programme and when he looked, he saw the picture I had done of Prince Philip. The usher asked if he could keep the programme.
“I said he could as long as I could have another programme and with that I left.
“A few days later I got a letter from Buckingham Palace from Prince Philip complimenting me on the drawing I had done of him.
“I couldn’t believe it.”
n Paul Trevillion will be the keynote speaker at the Tom Finney tribute dinner held in the Invincibles Lounge at Deepdale on Thursday, June 5.
Former PNE star and Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty will be guest speakers at the dinner.
Tickets are available by contacting Jim Cadman on 07971 624627 or 01562 887323.