'I felt a complete fraud': Arsenal and Manchester United FA Cup final referee Rob Styles on his cancer shock - and how he won
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It has been six weeks since Rob Styles received the all-clear following throat cancer, although ongoing side effects serve as a dogged reminder.
Initially the 59-year-old was irritated by a piece of food persistently trapping itself by his left tonsil. The reality was much more worrying – the lump was a tumour.
Treatment at QA Hospital involved 30 days of radiotherapy, interspersed with five chemotherapy sessions, finishing in January. Then came the agonising 12-week wait to discover its success.
And Styles will be raising a glass of water rather than red wine to toast good health.
‘It’s a very male thing. I have always been a fit, healthy person and I was quite dismissive. I felt a complete fraud when visiting the doctor,’ he told The News.
‘To me, it was nothing more than a bit of food trapped in a saliva gland, around the tip of my tonsil, that’s all.
‘Periodically through my life I’ve had bits of food stuck in the side of my mouth, you’d poke it with your tongue or finger and out it would pop. I really thought it was something like that.
‘It felt like half a grain of rice stuck in a fold of flesh. Under the tip of your tongue it's the size of a football and, while it was hard, it certainly wasn’t painful. There were long periods when I wasn’t even aware of it.
‘Then last summer it became a bit tender, perhaps I had poked and prodded it too much, so now it was time to leave it alone.
‘But it wasn’t right, the feeling was nagging away at me, so, in early August, I decided to ring the doctor. They asked whether it was an emergency, I replied it wasn’t, and was handed an appointment for two weeks later.
‘When I turned up, I was seen by a practice nurse, not even a doctor. The word was never mentioned. I saw a consultant at QA Hospital. The word was never mentioned.
‘I later received a letter asking me to go back. I sat into the waiting area and was eventually called into the consulting room. The moment I entered, I saw four people waiting for me. I knew.
‘Luckily it was the right decision to seek medical help – I had stage one throat cancer.’
The beginnings of Styles’ distinguished refereeing career can be traced back to questionable footballing ability for the Greyhound Pub in the Havant Sunday League.
Confined to regular bench duty, he was soon pressed into running the line, familiar match duties which awakened interest in officiating.
A long-time Fratton Park season ticket holder, he eventually opted not to renew following Division One relegation under Alan Ball in 1987-88. Instead, as a newly-qualified class 3 referee, spending weekends officiating in local football.
Styles added: ‘On that day at QA Hospital, I had two doctors poking and prodding. A tube was put up my nose and they determined my throat cancer was fully contained where it was, thankfully it wasn’t in my tongue, larynx or oesophagus.
‘I then left with a nurse and, in 45 seconds of talking to her, encouragingly she twice used the word “treatment”. Apparently QA Hospital deal with throat cancer all the time, with a very, very, very high success rate.
‘Yet it was her confident throwaway line of “It’s what we do” which really hit home. From that point I never believed this was something which would kill me. I cannot speak highly enough of the NHS, they were wonderful.
‘Radiotherapy initially involved lying on a bed near a CT machine and a flexible sheet of plastic positioned over my head, neck and shoulders, before moulded to the shape of my upper body.
‘Then it goes hard and is clamped down to the bench, so you physically cannot move as a huge machine circulates around your body, dealing a dose of radiation over 80 seconds.
‘During the opening five weeks of treatment, I also had chemo every Tuesday, each lasting four hours, which was quite a light dose, so I kept all my hair and didn’t have too many side effects.
‘Throughout the process I took inspiration from music. Every morning I drove in for radiotherapy listening to ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. On my trip home, as a nod to the treatment eating away at the tumour, it was ‘Feeling Stronger Every Day’ by Chicago.
‘There are bound to be low times and periods of self doubt, but I wanted to take a strong positive message into treatment each morning. I know it sounds cheesy, but it got me through.’
It was 18 years ago when Styles was allocated the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium.
Having been promoted to Premier League duty in 2000, in his fifth top-flight season, the former Cowplain School pupil oversaw what would prove to be a moment of FA Cup history – the first final to be settled by a penalty shoot-out.
Styles also had the distinction of issuing the second red card in an FA Cup final, with Jose Antonio Reyes sent off during extra-time as the match finished goalless, before Arsenal triumphed 5-4 on penalties.
The Bedhampton-based quantity surveyor said: ‘During cancer treatment I had permanent sunburn in my mouth, blisters on my tongue, inside my cheeks and on my gums. There was this horrible metallic taste, and burns on both sides of my throat.
‘For a period I lost all my facial hair, it still hasn’t grown back fully on the left-hand side, while my saliva production has stopped, meaning I can’t eat anything stodgy, such as bread.
‘Most of the stuff I now eat are soups and stews, things with a liquid base, otherwise I end up chewing my food and then taking a drink of water to get it through my throat.
‘Having lost my taste 10 days into the treatment, some four months on it’s coming back very slowly, but along with that your appetite goes. I’ve actually lost two-and-a-half stone.
‘I have no sweet sensation whatsoever. There is some sour or savoury taste, but anything with spice burns my tongue. Fizzy drinks instead tingle and irritate my mouth.
‘Before cancer, I’d have a white wine on a hot, sunny day or a red with some nice steak. Now all wine tastes horrible because the alcohol content burns my tongue. I just can’t drink it.
‘The only thing I can get down at the moment is a flat beer – and I only really drink that because it’s not water! Otherwise I drink gallons and gallons of water as I’m not producing saliva and have to drink all day.
‘Not that I’m complaining about any of it, this is a necessary evil to get rid of the cancer.’
These days Styles prefers cricket, rugby and golf to football, reflecting his motivation for early Premier League retirement at the age of 45.
Having confided in his wife and a close friend ahead of the 2008-09 season that it would be his last on the circuit, Stamford Bridge staged a May 2009 farewell, with Chelsea beating Blackburn 2-0.
The following month, he took charge of an international friendly between Japan and Belgium at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium in the Kirin Cup.
And Styles has never refereed at any level since.
‘I could have carried on for another 7-8 years, but there was a danger I may have fallen out of love with the game had I continued,’ he added.
‘Instead it freed me up to do things in my life I’d never been able to all the time I was refereeing.
‘I had never skied, never had a winter holiday, I would run the London Marathon with my wife Liz, crossing the line together holding hands.
‘I’d played golf before, but never really taken it seriously, now it’s a game I love. I play at Hayling Golf Club 2-3 times a week in the summer, while served as club captain for a year.
‘I’m not saying those experiences wouldn't have happened, but they’d have been shifted 7-8 years to the right.
‘When it’s your career, you are almost blinkered to football, football, football, it’s all-consuming. When you are striving to achieve, you make all the sacrifices.
‘But you have to balance what you give with what you get back – and I worked out that balance was no longer what I wanted. The danger was I’d resent it in some respects.
‘These days I don’t watch a lot of football because it doesn't particularly entertain me anymore. I’ll turn on the telly and watch bits and pieces, but if it’s 20 minutes into a stalemate then there’s loads I can do instead which entertains.
‘Family aside, football used to be the most important thing in my life. Now it isn’t. I’ll be watching the FA Cup final this weekend, but these days would put cricket, rugby and golf before football.
‘I’m much more entertained by a top-level game of rugby and that overall intensity. I went to Twickenham last weekend for the Premiership final between Sale and Saracens and I’m going on the British Lions tour to Australia in 2025. I had been meant to watch the Lions’ tour to South Africa in 2021, but it was cancelled for supporters after Covid.
‘I love cricket, I went to Lord’s a few times last year to watch England and, in 2014, saw an Ashes Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. If you ask whether I would rather spend four hours at a Hundred match at the Ageas Bowl or go to a football match, I would probably watch cricket.’
Styles' sporting wishlist includes watching a British Lions tour in each of the three continents, taking him up to 2033.
He also harbours ambitions of attending England cricket matches in all of the major Test-playing countries, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Australia and West Indies.
And, thanks to April’s cancer all-clear, they still remain on the agenda.
He added: ‘It took six months before I decided to see a doctor, which was probably too long.
‘There are too many of us, particularly post-Covid, who think let’s not worry the doctor, let’s not worry the NHS. Well just do it. I would urge anybody with anything, just do it.
‘If I hadn't gone, the cancer would probably have grown, spreading into the lymph nodes. I had no idea, I never felt any swelling in my throat, whereas a lot of guys with throat cancer feel it through shaving.
‘The hospital don’t use the word cure. I’m in what’s called complete remission because all signs of the cancer have gone.
‘I’m not in any way going to trivialise or minimise cancer, but it was explained to me that if you’re going to get it, throat cancer is one to have. It’s a viral cancer, completely contained in a fold of skin above the tonsil, with a high success rate of treatment.
‘As the oncologist recently said – you need to lead a healthy lifestyle, doing everything you can to give yourself the best chance and hopefully we’ll never see you again. The feeling’s mutual!’