TWO former international team-mates meet in a tunnel with a professional match only minutes away.

There is a stunned look from Steven Thomson of St Mirren as he looks at his friend. His old mate is now a referee.

Barry Cook has made the transition from promising goalkeeper to aspiring top-class official in a move that has been greeted with some surprise by those who knew him as a prospect who won 27 caps for his country as a youngster. The 32-year-old has been promoted to Category 1 status by the Scottish Football Association this season but he was once in the spotlight for his playing prowess.

Cook, who works in schools as a co-ordinator to promote fitness in pupils, said: "I was selected for the Scottish Schoolboys and then the Scottish FA international youth team and played in the European Championship finals in Belgium with Ross Mathie's under-16 squad."

He kept goal; Steven Thomson, Stuart McCaffrey (Morton) and Craig Easton (Dunfermline Athletic) played outfield. Cook admits with a smile that he enjoyed the reaction when he was the fourth official at St Mirren earlier this season and Thomson spotted him marching out as an official.

The switch from playing to refereeing began innocently but has now gained a momentum. "It all started when I was in sixth year and my headmaster asked me to referee a match," he said.

Cook enjoyed the experience and completed a refereeing course to earn pocket money at the weekend. He played in goal on a Saturday and blew the whistle on a Sunday. "My career in goal seemed to be going down," he admitted. "I started as a schoolboy signing at Rangers then moved to Queen's Park and then on to the Junior ranks."

Cook took a goalkeeping coaching course and was employed at Clyde. "Then they suddenly had injuries," he said, "and I was kept on as cover."

He was released at the end of the season when he was 23 but Billy Reid, the then Clyde manager, phoned him at the start of the next season to see if he would sign a contract to provide goalkeeping cover. "There was a stunned silence at the other end of the line when I told him I was quitting playing to concentrate on being a referee," said Cook.

He had been persuaded by other referees that his future lay with the whistle rather than with a pair of gloves. "You want to try to take it as far as you can," he said. "My playing career was moving in the wrong direction and I saw refereeing as a chance to fulfil some ambitions."

Cook has been monitored by the SFA and his advance into Category 1 means he is taking charge of third division matches this season, while occasionally acting as fourth official at Clydesdale Bank Premier League matches. He is, though, involved in a race against time as he has three years to make the FIFA list, which closes to referees on their 35th birthday.

Cook loves the experience of being in the middle as much as being in goal. "It is a personal challenge. There are 22 guys going at it and you are the man who has to be in control. It tests your man- management skills. I have no doubts whatsoever that what you learn on the park you can put into your personal life," he said.

He has no envy of the team- mates who have gone on to play professional football at a high level. "There are so many players like myself who were good at 16 but maybe did not come on. But there are others like Barry Robson and Scott Severin, for example, who were on the fringe of my age level but have now played in the international squad. That is the way it is with football.'

Cook admits his family have struggled to come to terms with his change of direction. "My wife can't understand how on a Saturday I can subject myself to some of the stuff I get. She has only ever been to three games in the 15 years I have refereed. She finds it difficult to listen to what is being shouted," he said.

Cook is more tolerant. "Maybe the guys doing the shouting have a difficult home life," he said. "If they are venting their rage at me then maybe it means other people are having an easier time."

His dad, Allan, who once managed Renfrew Waverley boys' team, was a keen spectator when his son was a goalkeeper. He now travels to watch Barry officiate. "It is funny educating your dad," he said with a smile of his father's reaction to some of his decisions. "He is coming round."

The focus and ambition that characterised his progress as a schoolboy goalkeeper has now found another direction. "This is more than just a substitute for playing," he said. "You have to be fully committed to progress as a referee."

There may have been surprise at Cook's change in career. There should be none if he makes it to the very top.