ALAN Snoddy is a legend of local football, refereeing his first game in 1972, he went on to enjoy a career that spanned three decades, officiating games at the highest level, including appearances at World Cup tournaments in 1986 and 1990.
When Alan retired he moved into consultancy work, firstly as a Referee Development Officer with the IFA and nowadays as a UEFA and FIFA Technical Instructor. When the Carryduff native isn’t jetting across the globe as part of his work with football’s global governing bodies, he enjoys spending time at his caravan in Newcastle and will often head down to Spa Golf Club, of which he is a member, to work on his handicap.
Reminiscing on the start of his career and his first ever game as a referee, a Churches League clash between Lowe Memorial and Bourneview Young Men at Wedderburn Park Playing Fields in 1972, Alan still remembers the “spark that lit the fire.” “I started at 16 years of age, which back then was the exception rather than the rule. I had a love for football and I was playing hockey at the same time for Friends School, so I knew if the refereeing pathway didn’t work I’d just go back to playing hockey. “A bit naively I’d been watching a few games and said to myself ‘the referee isn’t doing a very good job, I could do better than that.’ That was the spark that lit the fire, so I went and done the beginners referee course, the next thing I knew I was on the pitch and that was the beginning of a long, long journey.” Alan spent five years officiating at junior level, before moving into intermediate football and finally progressing into senior football at the age of just 23. Unlike today, a top flight Irish League official in his early 20s was unheard of back then. “It was very rare. Now you’d find there would be younger officials at all levels. Being that age at that stage got you noticed, because I was the only one.” Officiating in the Irish League in the 1980s and 1990s was no easy task, given the political situation the country faced at that time, but “football survived”, as Alan explained. “Obviously we had the political situation of course, but football kept going and football was a huge help to people to give them an outlet.
Unfortunately, at times, the atmosphere isn’t what you would have liked and we did go through an awful stage when there was a lot of crowd trouble and a lot of games were abandoned. “But we managed to keep going and that’s all changed now. The crowds came back. So football survived the Troubles.” Listed as a FIFA referee in 1980, Alan took charge of multiple European Cup (now the Champions League), UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) and World Cup qualifiers. In 1986, he received a phone call that would change his life. At the time he still worked at the Northern Bank, dividing his time between full time employment and his refereeing career. He was sat in his Ballynahinch office when a call came through from then-IFA General Secretary David Bowen. “I was sitting in the Northern Bank in Ballynahinch and the IFA rang me. It was David Bowen. He said I’d been selected for the World Cup Finals or something to that effect. “I was thinking, ‘this is weird’, a lot of things came to me when I wasn’t expecting it and they all came very quickly. I wasn’t even aware that the FIFA Committee was meeting to discuss who was going and who wasn’t.”
The race was on to prepare for the World Cup Finals, the pinnacle of any referee’s career. That summer the finals took place in the sweltering heat of Mexico. In an era when the array of sports scientists, nutritionists and fitness coaches available to referee’s nowadays weren’t readily available, Alan trained for the tournament by himself in the playing fields around Carryduff. The showpiece kicked off on 31 May and he was appointed to officiate a group stage game between Morocco and Portugal, a game that resulted in a shock 3-1 win for the African nation. However, it’s another group stage encounter in which Alan was an assistant referee, a battle between Italy and the legendary Diego Maradona’s Argentina side, that stands out in his mind. “I was lining up in the tunnel before the game, I looked behind me and all of a sudden I saw these players that I’d seen on the television, Maradona and all the Italian players. “It’s very hard to describe how it hit me but I was thinking, ‘What’s going on here, I’m a wee lad from Belfast, why am I here?’, but then after a few seconds I remember saying to myself, ‘Ok Alan, just focus, just concentrate, it’s a football match, you’ve got a decision to make in the next few minutes’”.
Four years later the former bank clerk took part in the Italia 90 World Cup, a tournament famous for the tears of England’s Paul Gascoigne and Cameroon’s shock run to the quarter finals. Some may think that returning to Irish League football after sharing a pitch with the greatest players in the world would be a difficult reality to accept, but the Carryduff man thought differently. “The next game was the important one. All of a sudden I had this label of being a World Cup referee beside my name. That always drove me to try and do my best in every match. I didn’t want standards to slip. “I was always very conscious that in every game I had to deliver even if it was a reserve team game, because for both sets of players on that day, that’s their World Cup final, so you have to treat every game with the respect that it deserves.” The MBE recipient remained on the FIFA referee list until 2000 and continued to oversee domestic games for three years, retiring in 2003.
Alan remembers the moment that helped persuade him it was time to call it a day, an Irish Cup semi-final between Glentoran and Portadown towards the end of the 2002/03 season. The IFA selected him for the game despite the fact he was no longer an international referee, a decision he felt was wrong as it was the first time in a number of years that a non-FIFAlicensed official had taken charge of an Irish Cup semi-final. “I didn’t feel comfortable. They appointed me because the game was high profile. That played a small part because I was thinking that I shouldn’t be taking this game off somebody else, they went with the safety first option. “That was a difficult game, there was two red cards, there was crowd trouble and it was just a bit messy. Before the game I said to myself, ‘this is my last game,’, although I didn’t say that to anybody. “After the game I said to myself, ‘I’m not having my last game with crowd trouble, two red cards and people thinking I’ve packed up because of all of that’, so I ended up going to the end of the season.”
A 32-year career eventually came to an end at Clandeboye Park as Bangor drew 0-0 with Newry in the first leg of a Premier Division relegation/promotion play off tie. It went smoothly, for the most part. “It was going fine, it was nice and quiet until some player decided to kick somebody and get a red card!” Although he shared the pitch with one of the greatest players of all time and received an MBE in 2021, Alan still cherishes a small personal achievement; never having to pull out of a game. He’s confident the record stands, but he’s not 100 per cent sure. “I’d refereed for 32 years and I’d never had to ‘cry off’ a game for an injury. I thought, ‘Alan, if you pick up an injury as the birthdays go on, you’re going to kick yourself’. “I did ‘cry off’ one game on a New Year’s Day, Newry v Larne when I had the flu, but the game was actually called off anyway because of the weather, so I hope I have a clean record!”
Reflecting back on a lifetime of officiating at the highest level, the magnitude of Alan’s achievements is something he’s only learned to appreciate after blowing the whistle for the final time. “Pressure isn’t a word I’m keen on but you are under pressure, you just don’t realise it until the next day when you wake up and all of a sudden it’s history and it’s gone by. “As each year goes by, as each World Cup goes by, with Maradona’s death a few years ago for example, you suddenly realise you were a part of all that.”