PAT Partridge, one of the world’s top football referees, died on Friday aged 81.

“With a name like mine, I’m there to be shot at,” he’d frequently observe.

Born in Billingham, for the past 41 contented years on a farm on the edge of Cockfield Fell, he was a FIFA referee for ten years.

He refereed in 57 different countries, was the first Briton to have charge of the World Club Cup final, refereed the 1975 FA Cup final, controlled many other top domestic and international games but was equally happy on the playing fields of south Durham.

“I never believed in picking and choosing games,” he once said. “You just accepted them gratefully because it was a football match. There were 22 players on the field and they deserved your best.”

Long before he reached the top, however, it was a storm lashed Northern League game at Whitley Bay which almost killed him.

It was November 16, 1962, the day of the Seaham lifeboat disaster.

“It was a wild day, absolutely terrible,” he remembered. “I remember the linesmen sort of crouching, as if trying to shelter from the storm. I abandoned the match after 37 minutes, stood 20 minutes in the shower and still couldn’t get warm.”

Despite feeling unwell, he officiated at Ferryhill the following week, then went to the doctor who sent him to bed and visited every day for a week.

“He said they’d only just caught it. If it had been rheumatic fever I could have been a goner.”

It meant three months out of work and out of football.

“I was lucky,” said Pat. “The winter of 1962-63 was so awful, I hardly missed a game.”

Not least after 53 years happy marriage to his wife Margaret, Pat always did reckon that he was the luckiest man alive.

His father was a sergeant major in the Airborne Division and won the MBE. Pat left school at 15, worked at Head Wrightson’s and was also a senior water polo and basketball referee before concentrating on football.

He qualified in 1953, became a Northern League referee in 1958 and seven years later was the first Northern League referee to be promoted directly to the Football League.

“Pat was a ground breaker,” said fellow Football League referee Terry Farley today.

“In those days NE didn’t stand for North-East, it referred to your chances and stood for non-existent. Where Pat went a lot of us followed. He was a tremendous referee.”

He also believed in what now is termed man management.

“I’ve many a time run past a player and told him that if he did something again I’d kick him over the stand,” he recalled in 2004. “They’d look at me but it worked. I got respect.”

Margaret had been the boss’s secretary at Head Wrightson. When they moved to her parents farm outside Cockfield in 1974, Pat called it Law One – football’s first law is headed “Field of Play.” His car was REF 1.

He became chairman of the Football League Referees and Linesmen’s Association, chairman of the North-East region of the Sports Aid Foundation, a well-known magistrate, Freemason and Rotary Club member and was chairman of the board of visitors at Holme House prison in Stockton. He was awarded the BEM in this year’s Birthday Honours list.

He joined the celebrity golf tour, raising money for charity, enjoyed many cruises with Margaret but, most of all, loved life on the farm.

“I’m the luckiest man alive,” he told the Backtrack column on the occasion of his 80th birthday. “I’ve had all these years gallivanting around the world, paid for blowing a whistle, and I’ve had 40 years up here. They’ll have to carry me out in a box.”

His funeral is expected to be private.