Clayton Slack, of Wirksworth, became something of an institution within the grassroots game, refereeing right up to the age of 78.
In a dedicated career that spanned 36 years, he was the ‘man in the middle’ at thousands of local-league matches, often officiating at three fixtures in one weekend. He even boasts the rare distinction of reffing three of his grandchildren.
But now, age and creaking bones have caught up with him, so football-mad Clayton has blown the final whistle on his labour of love.
“I have enjoyed every minute, but I had to end it at some time,” he said this week from his home on Yokecliffe Avenue, where he lives with 77-year-old wife Joan.
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“Because of problems with my Achilles tendon, it got to the stage where I took painkillers an hour before every game. But you can’t keep going on like that.
“I’m still getting phone calls to do games. Not long ago, I received three calls in one day asking me to ref, but I had to say no. I’ve given away all my kit now.”
Clayton has always been passionate about football, and is still a season-ticket holder at Derby County. In his younger days, he played for Wirksworth Ivanhoe. “I wasn’t a brilliant player,” he confessed. “But I was quick and mostly played on the right-wing.”
He never considered refereeing until, one day in the late 1970s, a work colleague, who was a ref, tempted him into it. He took a course at Derby, and the rest is history.
“My first game was a match in 1979 between Darley Dale and Dethick, Lea and Holloway,” Clayton recalled. “I was a bit scared really, especially refereeing players I had played alongside.
“My second match involved Littleover Dazzlers, and I was absolutely rubbish. I made a right cock-up of it. I wanted to be everybody’s friend, and it didn’t work. I didn’t get anything right, and the game got out of control. I learned very quickly after that.”
So quickly in fact that Clayton became a standing dish on the Derbyshire amateur circuit, officiating in the Derby City League, Hope Valley League, Matlock League, Derby Taverners League and Matlock League, among others, plus six-a-side leagues and youth leagues. A weekend schedule of work on Saturday mornings and refereeing on Saturdays afternoons, Sunday mornings and Sunday afternoons became the norm.
“The Alfreton Sunday Afternoon League was the hardest,” he remembered. “Spectators would come out from the miners’ welfares after a session of beer at lunchtime and take the mickey out of you, leaning on the goalposts with pints in their hands!”
That’s just one of many unusual or amusing tales that Clayton can drag lucidly from his memory bank. He well remembers the day a fan pulled a player’s shorts down as he was about to take a throw-in, and the match at Middleton rec that he had to abandon when a team walked off after he had sent off one of their players.
More sinister was the day at Leabrook in the 1980s when a Heanor team were so angered by his performance that they threatened to run him off the road after the match.
“They tried to block off the exit from the ground, so I couldn’t drive out,” Clayton said. “When I managed to get through, a car pulled up alongside me at a set of traffic lights, full of lads swearing at me and spitting at the car.
“You have to be very thick-skinned. If not, it’s no good being a ref. Some love you, some hate you. When I played, I used to curse referees -- until I realised what a difficult job it was.”
Despite the inevitable abuse, Clayton developed into a highly-respected referee. “Put it this way -- I was never short of work,” he joked. “I was always wanted!” In any event, he was well prepared for the stick he received because he spent two character-forming years in the Royal Artillery. Mainly based in Germany as a wireless operator, he was often on border patrol between the East and West, and also visited the Belsen concentration camp.
On leaving, he returned to the Wirksworth town where he has lived all his life and embarked on a 35-year working career at Rolls-Royce in Derby. Clayton and Joan, who met when they were in the same class at the old New Bridge Secondary Modern School, have two sons, Ricki, who worked for the Mercury for a time as a compositor, and Craig, and a daughter, Deanna Worth.
But one of his proudest refereeing achievements revolves around his grandchildren, For he has handled matches in which grandsons, Kyle Worth, 27, Callum Worth, 27, and 13-year-old Conner Bonsal, have all played -- not to mention Kyle and Callum’s dad, Neil!
Clayton has also officiated at many cup finals and was honoured at the 100th anniversary of Matlock’s Cavendish Cup final in 2005 when he, as the oldest official at the time, ran one line while the youngest at the time ran the other.
He is sure the history books will remember him as the county’s oldest referee. “The only other one I can think of is Colin Riley, of Crouch, who has since died,” he said. “He was 72 when he was still refereeing.”
However, Clayton has never received any official award to mark his devotion to the grassroots game in Derbyshire.
“I haven’t made a song and dance about it,” he said modestly. “At one time, referees who reached 25 years received a silver whistle, but I never got one.”
A red card then for Derbyshire FA. If anyone at county headquarters is reading this, surely it’s time to honour Clayton Slack, the golden oldie of referees.