NORTH-EAST football has been paying tribute to former top-flight referee Peter Willis, who has died at the age of 83.

Mr Willis, who was born in Newfield, near Bishop Auckland, made footballing history in 1985 when he sent off Manchester United’s Kevin Moran to become the first referee to issue a red card in an FA Cup final.

A police officer, who combined his full-time job with his refereeing, Mr Willis began officiating in the Football League in 1972 and also spent 18 years as the national president of the Referees’ Association.

Northern League president George Courtney, himself a former referee who officiated in an FA Cup final, said: “It's such sad news that Peter has passed away.

“He was a stalwart of the league and one of the best referees in the country - respected by all those who played and worked alongside him.  He was president of the Referees' Association for 18 years and gave invaluable help and advice to referees at all levels of the game throughout his career.

“I have known Peter for more than 60 years - we came up through the leagues together and he will be a huge miss to the football community in the region and nationally. He was one of the best people you could hope to meet.”

Mr Willis was a footballer himself prior to his refereeing career, joining Newcastle United as a goalkeeper and playing in the Northern League for Willington and Tow Law as well as winning a Wearside League medal with Langley Park.

A village bobby in the Quarrington Hill area, east of Durham, Mr Willis played for his local side when constabulary duty allowed, and stepped in to referee a match in 1963 when the designated official failed to turn up.

The refereeing bug clearly bit, and he embarked on a hugely-successful career that reached his peak when he was chosen to officiate in the 1985 FA Cup final at Wembley, a match that will always be remembered for his decision to send off Moran.

The Northern Echo: COURAGEOUS: Peter Willis sends off Kevin Moran in the 1985 FA Cup final

“I saw what happened and had a decision to make,” he said of the incident. “I could have put the whistle on the ground and walked off, or applied the laws of the game and sent Moran off.”

After retiring from football, Mr Willis spent time as the captain of Crook Golf Club.

Mike Amos, a former Northern Echo journalist and close friend of Mr Willis, paid tribute in his blog, Grass Routes, saying: “Peter was 83, he was an absolutely top man and he was my mate.”