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“Mark Clattenburg is by far our best referee…”
And, before you go reaching for your tablet or smartphone and jump onto social media to dispute that, it’s not necessarily my opinion – and certainly not my quote. Rather it was a comment made by former top official Mark Halsey when speaking on Radio 5 back in 2017.
Few would doubt that Halsey certainly knows a fair bit about the refereeing game, so his opinion should clearly, at the very least, be considered as informed. Now, add the fact that amongst many other high-profile games he has officiated in, Clattenburg has also refereed a League Cup Final, a Community Shield and FA Cup Final, and that’s only domestically. Add in a UEFA Super Cup, the 2012 Olympics Men’s Final, the 2016 Champions League Final and the final of the European Championships in the same year, and that’s one heck of an impressive CV. The question then arises as to why then, with such a record of achievement, is the County Durham born official often viewed as a figure of controversy by a number of football fans, or is that just being a high-profile man in black with a whistle, he has a huge target on his back and people can’t resist throwing brickbats at him?
Appointed to the Football League as a referee in 2000, before moving on to the Premier League four years later, then becoming FIFA listed in 2006, Mark Clattenburg has been in the spotlight much more than so many referees would have like to have been, with some of that attention coming from events outside of the game.
In 2008, following an investigation into alleged debts sustained by companies he had links with, Clattenburg was suspended by the referees’ governing body. An action that also cost him the honour of officiating at the FA Community Shield that year. Such things are always contentious matters of course, with so much information understandably not open to the public and it must be said that Clattenburg denied all of the allegations. A ban was given however dated from 6 August 2008, and although he was reinstated by the Professional Game Match Officials as a Select Group referee in mid-February 2008, it meant that he would only referee a single Premier League fixture that term, being on the last day of the season.
Fans will always have an occasion when controversy about a referee sticks in their mind. Quite often, understandably, they tend to involve situations when things go against their team, and such things must inevitably be weighed with a touch of potential bias in mind. That said, a couple of incidents involving Clattenburg perhaps highlight how the spotlight seemed to be intrinsically drawn towards him on occasions – whether with justification or not, is perhaps down to personal perception.
Perhaps the most infamous issue of on-field controversy came in a game between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. In a highly fractious match, with tempers boiling over, Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres were both sent off and it was alleged that the referee made inappropriate comments to John Obi Mikel. Chelsea, supporting their players, made an official complaint. An investigation later decided that the referee was innocent of the charge, with reports suggesting that his north-eastern accent may have been the cause of a misheard comment. Whatever the case, the FA cleared Clattenburg, and Mikel was later found guilty of “threatening and/or abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour” towards the official, fined and banned for three games. If it had been something that Mikel genuinely thought had been said to him, one may reflect that the punishment was harsh indeed for something misheard.
A second example also occurred at Stamford Bridge, this time in May 2016, involving Tottenham as they forlornly chased down Leicester City in pursuit of the league title. In a game that secured the title for the Foxes, when Chelsea pulled back from a two-goal deficit to draw, a number of visiting players clearly lost control of the situation, with the referee’s command of the game also imperilled. Later, perhaps unwisely, Clattenburg would state that he reportedly “allowed Tottenham to self-destruct” during the game. It seemed like a strange thing to say, even if it were true, and perhaps even stranger if it wasn’t.
Despite any subsequent controversy arising from the comment, or perhaps because of it to some extent, Clattenburg was offered, and accepted, a post, reportedly earning some £325,000 per year to help raise refereeing standards in Saudi Arabia, taking over the position from Howard Webb. It may not have been the wisest of moves for all concerned.
When a strong reliance on political understanding is a staple requirement, a candid and outspoken report criticism of standards is hardly the right way to ingratiate yourself into a new environment. Perhaps with a natural tendency to be forthright about things, reports suggest that Clattenburg’s assessment of refereeing standards in the country was hardly complimentary. Eighteen months into the contract, he was removed, and replaced by a local official. Was it a criticism of his ability to complete the job, or just the consequence of someone committed to, and demanding of, high standards of refereeing that his charges were unable to match? The change led to a return to on the field activities for Clattenburg and a move to the rapidly growing Chinese Super League. It’s unknown whether there was an invitation or request to return to the English game.
Anyone who has been dragged kicking and screaming into refereeing even a children’s game of football will know how difficult the job is. Magnify by a magnitude, and you have the pressure and intense scrutiny visited upon officials in the modern game at its highest level. It’s a truly awesome and thankless task. Speaking after the furore of the incident with Mikel, Clattenburg confessed that at times he even felt like quitting the game there and then. He would also later relate that at other times he has received death threats and threats to his family. For someone merely carrying out the requirements of his job, it’s an intolerable and totally unacceptable burden to have to carry.
Is, or perhaps more correctly was, Mark Clattenburg “by far our best referee” or not? Such opinions are wide and varied, always coloured by personal experience. What is indisputable, however, is that he was doing a massively complex job under enormous pressure and often victimised by media scrutiny and the criticism of others who chose not to put themselves in such a firing line, satisfied – and highly rewarded instead – to sit and judge. Perhaps we should, at least, grant a little more understanding in such circumstances. Without referees, we wouldn’t have a game anyway.