On a glorious summer's morning in the English midlands a row has broken out during a training match with one of the teams surrounding the referee, vehemently protesting his latest decision. Nothing particularly unusual about that, of course, except the men shouting and swearing at the referee, albeit with plenty of laughs, are not actually footballers.
No, they are the English Premier League's elite referees putting the final touches to their own preparations for the start of the new season. "It was handball, ref, it was handball," they gesture, mimicking the theatrics they have to put up with week in, week out from the Premier League's players they officiate. The standard of play is predictably low but the camraderie among the group at the superb facilities at Warwick University is hugely impressive as one man will willingly testify.
He is Mark Halsey: referee, cancer sufferer and survivor - and standing back laughing at the behaviour of his colleagues. He for one, is just happy to be there. A year ago this week Halsey, 49, took charge of his last Premier League game between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park in the opening fixture of the 2009/10 season - the day after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. "I thought that was it, there were times when I never thought I was going to live, let alone referee in the Premier League again," he said after the training match was over.
"Now I am really nervous again. I've passed the fitness test, got back on the list and can't wait for my first match back, Wigan versus Blackpool tomorrow. I can't wait until the kick-off when I can be 'Mark Halsey, referee' again, not 'Mark Halsey, cancer sufferer'. Once the fans start booing me, or the players start arguing I'll be happy, I'll know I really am back." But while delighted at his own recovery and glad to be among the elite group of 16 again, there is still sadness.
Shortly before training he had heard the news that Adam Stansfield, Exeter City's 31-year-old striker, had died of bowel cancer on Tuesday while another former Premier League player and friend was also fighting the disease. His own wife, Michelle, is suffering from myeloid leukaemia which is treatable but not curable and Halsey is clearly affected by what is going on around him. "You ask yourself on a day like this, 'Why did I survive and Adam didn't?' It's tough. How did I get it in the first place?
"I was fit, looked after myself, yet the doctors said they had never seen a more aggressive tumour. If I had left it another two weeks I probably would not have made it. "I had an operation to remove it and a week later it was back. There were some black moments, the treatment was very, very tough, the radiotherapy, the chemo, I was very ill at Christmas. "But people rally around, these guys here have been fantastic as have many people in football, as was The Christie Hospital in Manchester and Professor Tim Illidge. I could not have made it without them."
Mark Clattenburg, the Premier League referee, said he was full of admiration for his colleague who failed the fitness test the first time around before passing it at the second attempt. "I was training next to the track and cheered him on. You have to be so fit to be a Premier League referee and lots of very good referees do not make it because they cannot pass the fitness test. "It's very tough for a healthy man, never mind someone who has been through what Mark has had to endure.
"In some ways I never doubted he could do it, he was that determined to get back. He made his mind up nothing was going to beat him, I just admire him so much." Mike Riley, the former referee and now the general manager of the elite officials, the Professional Game Match Officials group, said the referees had been on a roller-coaster ride with him. "The sense of shock when we heard the news last August was huge. But he is a remarkable man. Within two days of finishing the chemotherapy he was back on the treadmill.
"He was so utterly determined to come back, he has a phenomenal mentality and needed so much mental strength not only to cope with his own illness but also with Michelle's. It is very emotional that he is back." One legacy of his illness is more than £50,000 (Dh288,000) he and his wife have raised for the hospital that treated him and a sense that he can be an example to other cancer sufferers. "They can survive, there is hope," he said.
Another is an almost permanently dry mouth. "It just means I have to drink lots and lots of water," he smiles. "But It doesn't affect my ability to blow a whistle." * Reuters