Knight of the Whistle: The life of top referee Ralph Tarratt

Brief outline

In the UK, the 1950s are considered, by many, the golden age of refereeing. The country yielded a bumper crop of great referees, many of whose names still live on years hence: Arthur Ellis, Mervyn Griffiths, Ken Aston, Reg Leafe, Jack Clough… Perhaps this is a cloud of nostalgia working its effect, for the pre-television era made it easier to establish legends, the tarnish of poor decisions not as sticky as it is these days, what with media and pundits being at the ready to blow everything up and out of proportion almost 24/7. A lesser known name from that time is Ralph Tarratt, although he enjoyed great respect amongst his contemporaries.

Compiled at the initiative of his nearest and dearest, this book recounts the story of Ralph’s life. With gusto! The countless tales and anecdotes were recorded straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, when Ralph was over 90 years old and still sound of mind. That goes to show, for in nearly 200 pages his entire life passes before the reader’s eyes. And what an interesting life he had! His first brush with football was at a very young age, and he turned referee at the ripe age of 22. Ralph saw his dream of becoming a professional football player dashed by injury and a lack of talent, although he came close. He shot up the ranks quickly, making an indelible impression upon Sir Stanley Rous when, as a linesman, he took over a League match from an injured ref, handling the match much to the delight of the attending Rous. After WWII Rous sent Tarratt on a tour of South America, where he managed to raise the ire of President Peron by awarding a penalty against home side Argentina. This upright, firm, honest demeanor in spite of circumstances was what earned him the nickname ‘Knight of the Whistle’.

Tarratt’s rise to the top was interrupted by the second World War. Ralph, like many men of his days, enlisted and was sent to Africa. A busy train made him miss the ship there, but he was fortunate because that ship was torpedoed by the Germans. That’s how Ralph lived to tell this tale. A remarkable phenomenon, in retrospect, is the zeal with which the English attempted, in as far away places as Kenya and the Sudan, to let football life prosper in the face of war. Teams made up of professional players were despatched all round the world to entertain the troops with matches against local teams. Ralph joined one of these touring groups as their regular ref when he was stationed in Africa.

On his return and helped no doubt by his war experience, Ralph made it to the top flights of the professional game after all. It was not like now, with refereeing being a real job; Ralph continued in his profession as a billiards salesman. His details of this period are prolific, as was his real life. In addition to reffing, nationally as well as locally, and touring the country selling green felt tables, he managed a local football club and competition and headed a referees’ association. His personal life receives plenty of attention too, as this was one of the goals of the book: all proceeds go towards a cancer research foundation, as Ralph lost two of his three wives to the disease.

Value for active referees


Although Ralph’s life story is highly entertaining – in particular his wartime experience and the details of football and refereeing in pre-war and wartime days – it contains very little that would be of use to present-day referees, with the exception of an ode to determination.

Final say

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the all but endless recollections of this remarkable man, told at a very high age. However, for instructional purposes I cannot recommend this book, no matter how entertaining it is. It causes amazement and wonder at the conditions in which referees of early days travelled to and reffed their matches. Modern-day referees should count their blessings.


Title Knight of the Whistle: The life of top referee Ralph Tarratt
Authors Phil Dennett and Jeremy Gambrill
Publisher Whistleblower
Year 2003
Pages 199
3 / 5     


  1. Fair comment. I was struggling to finish this book for Jeremy Gambrill, who had died of cancer when about a third of the way through it. Ralph’s health deteriorated rapidly and the his family desperately wanted it launched as soon as possible. As a belated footnote, Ralph died soon after Jimmy Hill helped launch the book. Today 19 December 2015, I hear Jimmy has died. I shall never forget the delight on Ralph’s face as Jimmy walked into the room. Bless them both.

    • Thank you Phil, for your comment. I loved reading about Ralph’s life and am glad you and Jeremy committed his story to paper. Jimmy Hill’s decease was sad news indeed. He was a respected figure among referees as well. When did Ralph pass away exactly? I will add it to the page. Thank you.

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