'My hero is a bald referee'

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Isaac Gborlee is a 14-year-old Liberian whose hero - of all people - is the former British football referee, Howard Webb. Adrian Chiles tells the story of how a boy from a poor one-parent family ended up refereeing matches with a yellow card his idol used in the World Cup final.I often fall into despair about football, invariably when my team is going through one of its many bad patches. At these times all the depressing things about the global game float to the surface of my thinking: the money, the corruption, the World Cups held in the wrong places, the same old clubs winning the same old trophies. You know the kind of thing.Feeling very much like this recently I texted an old friend of mine, with whom I shared much football back in the last century at university together. Ged's a big Newcastle fan from Consett, County Durham, who is now an aid worker in West Africa. "Do you still like football[/img]
He replied at once: "I love it. Despite everything. On one hand, even in Liberia I get Johnny-come-lately Chelsea fans taking the mickey out of me. On the other hand, I met a 14-year-old kid who wants to be Howard Webb, so that balances things up."
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Howard Webb shows a yellow card to Van Bronckhorst in the 2010 World Cup Final

Find out more
Listen to Isaac's story on Chiles on Friday on Radio 5 live from 10:00 on 2 March
Or listen via the BBC iPlayer
Adrian Chiles has presented sports programmes on the BBC and ITV and is a lifelong fan of West Bromwich Albion football club
'My hero is a bald referee'

I asked for more information and Ged told me that he had met Isaac in the town of Gbarnga, four hours' drive north of the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The charity Ged works for, Mary's Meals, provides school meals to children in poor communities and Isaac is one of those who benefit. As they chatted in Isaac's home, Isaac told him about a football coach called Timothy "Gapsi" Kromah, who has had a huge effect on his life.
'My hero is a bald referee'

Football coach Timothy "Gapsi" Kromah has taken Isaac Gborlee under his wing
Isaac was nine years old when Gapsi came across him sitting on the grass watching some footballers preparing for a training match. And when Gapsi blew his whistle for the game to start, he saw Isaac jump up, attach some plastic to a stick, and start holding it like a linesman. "Every time the ball go out, he would put the plastic up," says Gapsi, who started reacting to Isaac's signals.
'My hero is a bald referee'

This, in Gapsi's words, is what happened next:I decided to follow him, and would blow. Any foul he would put the flag up, and I would blow. After the practice, I called him. I said, 'What's your name[/img]
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Isaac with his mum
[i]I told him to come for practice the next day. He came. So I called the children on the practice ground. I told them, 'This man you see, he will be your head from today. Anybody disrespect him, you disrespect me. So everything he tells you to do, do it, or you will not play on the team,'" says Gapsi.
Over time, Isaac came to be known as Isaac Popo because of the sound his whistle makes. And Gapsi saw him improve to such an extent that he decided to try him out refereeing adult football.I took him one morning to the old-timers, practising one Sunday. I told these guys, 'Let the little kid ref our practice.'You know, they got vexed, so they say, 'Why, Gapsi[/img]

'My hero is a bald referee'

Gapsi was delighted to see his protege pass the test. [i]After 10 minutes, just to observe these guys, to see whether they enjoy Isaac, I said, 'Cut the practice off and give the whistle to the next guy.'
The guys got angry. They said No, I should not do it. They saw that the little kid was good. So we started entrusting him with some games. Big, big games. He reffed the biggest high school game, which is Gboveh and St Martin's. You know the only reason why he's he's not reffing far is because of his age. According to the football association, you've got to reach 18 before you can do this. We tried going and registering him to the Liberia Football Association, but no help. If he has the support, I see him go far, like Howard Webb, the great Howard Webb of England. I see him maybe exceeding Howard Webb, because that's his role model. He said he wants to be like Howard Webb, or even more than Howard Webb.Now I've never met Howard Webb but I did have a number for him so I dropped him a text.on Radio 5 LiveJoin the conversation - find us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter
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