A few days after celebrating his 50th birthday, Sorbie-born football assistant referee Andy Halliday got the news he always wanted - he had been chosen as one of the referees for last Saturday’s FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley.
For the Royal Army Physical Training Corps officer, who took up football refereeing with the Army Football Association 20 years ago, it was the pinnacle of his career and gave his family, wife Cindy, daughter Zoe and son Jack, a day out to remember forever.
But the first thing Andy wanted to do was pay tribute to the man who inspired him in the first place, Newton Stewart referee Wullie McKnight. As a young boy playing football, he looked up to Wullie and Wullie, in turn, has been Andy’s greatest supporter down the years always giving him feedback on his performance and encouraging him on.
After the most exciting weekend of their lives, Cindy, who watched the game in the Royal Box with 22-year-old Jack,
Cindy, who is also from the Machars, said: “We are all so pleased for Andy as referees only get the Cup Final once, and it was the week of his 50th birthday and he will retire next year. It’s the biggest game in the word with a TV audience of millions. It’s given on merit and Andy deserves it as he has worked very hard to get it.
“There was great excitement when he got the news but he told very few people as he had a game at Arsenal the week before.
“We all went down to London on the Thursday night and the five officials for the cup final all stayed in the same hotel. There was a question and answer session for the referees at Westminster on the Friday night and on Saturday we all set off for Wembley, Jack and I went as Andy’s guests. Unfortunately there are only two tickets, so Zoe had to sit in the stands!
“We were right behind Prince William in the Royal Box. Andy said when he met him before the game the Prince was “a true gentleman” and wished him a good game. When he waked out of the tunnel onto the Wembley pitch, Andy said the hairs stood up on the back of his neck and he found himself standing beside Louis Van Gaal (the now former Manchester United manager) in the line up.
“The game was a blur, he said, as he was concentrating so hard on everything - where this player was, where that player was, but when the first goal went in (for Crystal Palace) Andy said you felt the tempo of the game go up and he knew another goal was coming (Manchester United equalise three minutes later). The one thing Andy wasn’t looking forward to was extra-time and penalties as everyone was drained of energy. But extra-time it was and he was just praying someone would score as it’s horrible if it has to be decided on penalties. (Manchester United scored the winner). When the final whistle went Andy just felt relief as that was the end of his season and he could get a rest!
“Andy was told to by the referee to count the steps up to the Royal Box, there are 107 steps, to stop him tripping up, as if you count the steps, you can’t think about anything else!
“Jack and I had a great time at the pre-game lunch as at the table behind us sat Sir Alex Fergusson and Sir Bobby Charlton. The bold Jack went over and asked Alex Fergusson if he would mind having his picture taken with him. He didn’t mind a bit and Jack was thrilled. Andy always liked ‘Fergie’ as he always remembered Andy’s name and that he was a Queen of the South supporter. If Andy was running the line when Manchester United were playing, at half-time Fergie would shout over: “Hey Andy, Queens are two-nil up!”
One of the few people Andy told he was to officiate at the Wembley showpiece was his boyhood inspiration, recently retired local ref Wullie McKight.
Wullie said: “Andy must be the only man in the world I am envious of! I had a brilliant career refereeing but nothing like what Andy has achieved.
“It shouldn’t be understated what he has done as the referees are under tremendous pressure in the English Premier League and he has been remarkably consistent in the big games for many years now. He thoroughly deserved to get the Cup Final.”