FORMER top-level referee Derek Reginald George Nippard from Christchurch has died at the age of 86.

On leaving school at the age of 15 Derek started an apprenticeship with the Southern Gas Board at Bourne Valley, Branksome, and during his 40 years' service worked his way up to become a District Service Officer in charge of 40 men.

He married Margaret in 1975 at Bournemouth Register Office and they set up home in Christchurch.

"Derek's passion for football began at an early age and whilst not being particularly good at playing he decided to become a referee, passing the referee examination in 1949 at the age of 19, and started his refereeing career in the Bournemouth Football Leagues," said Tony Hart, a friend of Derek's from 1966 when he joined the Referee Society.

He was also a qualified cricket umpire officiating in matches throughout the area.

In 1950 Derek joined the RAF for his National Service and was posted to Liverpool during which time he contracted a serious illness and had to have one of his kidneys removed. When Derek recovered he returned to Bournemouth, his job and his passion for refereeing.

"Derek was promoted through the referee grading system on to the Football Combination League and finally reached the Football League in 1963 serving as a linesman for three years and referee for eleven until retiring at the age of 47. He officiated at many top games in all divisions of the Football League and his final game was the 1978 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Ipswich at Wembley where he famously did a lap of honour at the end of the game with his linesmen, Jim Bent and John Lydon.

"During his career Derek refereed matches in five different countries and achieved many football awards including 50 year service awards from the FA and the Referees' Association," said Tony.

After taking early retirement from the Gas Board, Derek joined the Social Services as a mini-bus driver.

He maintained his interest in the local football scene and became a steward at Dean Court for the Cherries on home match days. He also served on the council of the Bournemouth Hayward Football League and the Bournemouth Divisional Football Association for more than 40 years.

Derek helped with Bournemouth Poppies FC and joined Christchurch FC becoming club chairman and then life vice-president. He was also was a life president of the Hampshire FA and a past president of the Bournemouth Football Association.

He was a member of the Freemasons and was a past master of Horsa Lodge in Bournemouth.

Derek passed away on July 14 at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital after a long illness. He is survived by his wife Margaret, brother John and sister-in-law Barbara Nippard. His funeral will be held on August 1 at Bournemouth Crematorium, commencing at 2pm.