SFA referees chief

Born: 20 September 20, 1957;

Died: 22 October 22, 2019

JOHN Fleming, who has died aged 62, was the SFA's head of referee operations.

An intensely-private man, John kept the details of his illness to himself and his family and over his final, pain-filled years, he endeavoured to maintain a veneer of normality, carrying out his duties for the game's governing body from his sick bed until the very end.

John Fleming was an East End man, born and raised in Shettleston; indeed he continued to live his entire life in that part of Glasgow. Leaving school, he joined the GPO as a telephone engineer, spending many years with the company as it morphed into BT.

Like almost every Glasgow boy, he loved football, but his own ability only took him as far as park football in the amateurs, before, in his mid-twenties, he joined “the dark side” by becoming a referee.

His rise through the ranks was solid and unspectacular, but, in 1994 he achieved the Holy Grail and was promoted to Grade One, officiating in the top domestic games. However, when FIFA and UEFA re-organised the grades and began to look for specialist assistant referees (linesmen back then), John was one Scottish official to opt out of being in the middle.

This move paid-off; he was soon recognised as one of the top specialists and in 1996, when Scotland was invited to send a four-man team – one referee, two ARs and a fourth official –to officiate at the European Championship finals in England, John Fleming was one of that quartet, along with referee Les Mottram, fellow AR Bobby Orr and fourth official Hugh Dallas, who impressed everyone with their competence at the highest level.

He continued to officiate until reaching the mandatory retirement age, whereupon he switched seamlessly to become a referee supervisor – the men in the stand checking on the performance of the team on the ground.

He was a member of the Glasgow Referees Association from the start, and rose to enjoy a spell as that body's president. The move into supervising had come just as John took voluntary retirement from BT, and he was quickly snapped up to join the growing SFA referees department in 2009. Thus, when Hugh Dallas had his spectacular fall from grace in 2011, John was promoted to the top job.

He followed a distinguished line at Hampden. After the paternalistic rule of the likes of Jack Mowat, Tom Wharton and Bobby Davidson, when the referees were fiercely independent, they were brought under the SFA umbrella with George Cummings, Donald McVicar then Dallas in charge.

When John Fleming took over, he made a conscious decision to concentrate on recruiting and retaining match officials, a task he managed brilliantly as refereeing numbers rose. He had always supported the officials at grassroots level. For many years he ran the Glasgow Association's referee education classes – encouraging and teaching raw recruits, then when, as invariably happened, the new officials suffered dog's abuse from the touchlines at Glasgow Green of Petershill Park, or around the various junior grounds, John Fleming was always ready with an encouraging word, an ever-present shoulder to cry on. Seasoned referees tell of countless occasions when John Fleming persuaded a young referee who had had a hard time from fans and officials not to chuck it all in.

He was particularly supportive of the growing number of female match officials, always ready to tackle the misogyny they had to endure. He was also, on the back of his many years with BT, in the forefront of giving referees a presence on social media.

Refereeing was his passion, he put everything he had into the craft and his unstinting work won him friends across Scotland and abroad. Club managers praised how, when, still smarting from some perceived officiating injustice on the Saturday, they telephoned John Fleming to complain on the Monday, he would listen, he would sympathise and he was able to defuse potentially awkward moments – he had fantastic diplomatic skills.

He was a well-regarded member of IFAB's (the International Football Associations Board) Technical Panel, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of the great Pierluigi Collina in advising the game's ultimate law-making body on possible changes to the laws of the game.

Football and refereeing was his almost all-consuming passion, but he did enjoy occasional games of bowls when not spending time with his family.

Sadly, he lost his devoted wife Ann in 2016, and he is survived by son Graham, daughter Dawn and his grandchildren, Anna, Charlie and Rose. He will also be sadly missed by Scotland's refereeing community, they have lost a true father figure and a man whose efforts on their behalf deserve great praise.