Mark Clattenburg: Referee & Idiot

by | Dec 6, 2017

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment at which it started to come to this. Perhaps it was the formation of the Premier League, when the new league, drunk on dreams of the celebrity status that would end up coming to pass in most respects, stripped referees of the schoolmasterly all-black kits they’d worn for more than half a century and replacing them with green shirts, as though they needed a coloured uniform of their own. Perhaps it came as an unintended consequence of referees becoming professional in 2001 or with the growth in the influence of PGMOL, the body charged with the job of overseeing the appointment of referees for Premier League, Football League and FA competition matches. Perhaps the tipping point has been reached more gradually, as the increased glare of the media has shone more brightly upon whilst the trappings of fame have started to feel as though they could be within reach.

It’s easy to dismiss criticism of referees as the paranoid delusions of supporters who can’t see past the end of their own noses, but just occasionally they go so far beyond the pale that they become indefensible. It happened more than ten years ago when Jeff Winter expressed in his autobiography the possibility that the Kop had risen as one to hail the end of his career rather than their team’s win, and now it’s happened again, this time with the extraordinary  comments of – if his own words are anything to go by – the thankfully former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg regarding his decision-making during the match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur towards the end of the 2015/16 season.

It’s a common – and often misplaced – criticism of referees that they seek to ‘make the game all about themselves’. This often feels like a facile form of criticism, but sometimes the cap fits just too perfectly. In a remarkable interview with NBC’s Men In Blazers podcast last weekend, the following exchange took place:

Interviewer: I need to ask you this: did a Clattenburg refereed game have a personality, if so, what were its traits?

Clattenburg: There’s one game in particular, which was the “Battle of Stamford Bridge.” It was Chelsea vs. Tottenham, if was the famous that year Leicester win the title, it was theatre. I went in with a gameplan that I didn’t want Tottenham Hotspur blaming Mark Clattenburg that they were going to lose the title. It should have been three red cards to Tottenham; I allowed them to self-destruct so all the media, all the people in the world went, “Tottenham lost the title.” If I sent three players off from Tottenham, what’s the headlines? “Clattenburg lost Tottenham the title,” and it was pure theatre that Tottenham self-destructed against Chelsea and Leicester win the title.

Interviewer: In that game, were the Chelsea players not screaming bloody murder, they’re like, “Clattenburg what are you doing we’re getting massacred here!”

Clattenburg: It was the first game where Diego Costa never got cautioned (laughs). It was so crazy when you look back at the game but, when Hazard scored to equalise to make it 2-2 I’ve never felt an atmosphere in a stadium before like that before, because of Chelsea had stopped one of the enemies winning the title.

Interviewer: In a way you scripted it.

Clattenburg: I helped the game, I certainly benefitted the game by my style of refereeing. Some referees would have played by the book and Tottenham would have been down to seven or eight players and probably lost, and Tottenham would have been looking for an excuse but I didn’t give them an excuse, because my gameplan was let them lose the title.

There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s begin with something of a disclaimer. This isn’t a partisan issue. Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur or Leicester City might all have lost out significantly had Clattenburg’s “gameplan” backfired in any way. Chelsea, as a result of his lax refereeing, might argue that they were conned out of three points by his insistence on keeping eleven Spurs players on the pitch – they ended the season a single point behind Stoke City, which cost the club a little over ¬£1.2m in prize money. Leicester City might, had the race ended up coming closer to the wire than it did in the end, have lost a once in a lifetime title. Even Spurs, the villains of this particular piece (and it is obviously more difficult to have as much sympathy with this as the other two clubs involved), might have lost players to injury themselves as a result of their recklessness or otherwise might consider that they would have benefitted from stricter refereeing in such a volatile fixture to calm the players and lay down the law of what was acceptable on the pitch and what wasn’t.

It should also go without saying that matters relating to whether “all the people in the world went, ‘Tottenham lost the title'” or not is so far from his jurisdiction as a referee as to be a complete irrelevance to him. It’s a dumbfounding admission to make publicly, to the point that hints that he might not even truly understand what the role of a referee is within a football match. Similarly, to say aloud that “some referees would have played by the book” is to suggest that he intentionally didn’t. Indeed, he then goes on to outline exactly why he didn’t.

This is, to be blunt, a dereliction of duty. And “duty” is the key word, here. Every single person who sets foot on a football pitch has one basic duty that must always take precedence before any other considerations even start to become important – that is, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of every other person on the pitch at the same time. This duty of care is all the more accentuated when it comes to the role of the referee. That this match  finished with no serious injuries having occurred cannot now be reasonably considered to have happened on account of the refereeing of Mark Clattenburg. It happened, we can only surmise, in spite of it. And for all the chuckling and implied “bantz” of it all, that should worry all football clubs, all football supporters, and, in particular, all professional footballers.

Football is a game played at a furious pace, and it’s only getting faster. It is also, for those who make their living from playing it, a highly precarious line of business. One false move, one piece of bad luck, one bad tackle could end a career. We have laws of the game in part to protect players, not only from each other but also from themselves. As Paul Gascoigne, for example, might reasonably testify, any aggressor in a football match can easily become a victim of their own aggression. A professional footballer’s career can be a fragile thing, and there is a moral responsibility on the part of all concerned with the professional game to do their utmost to protect players.

Ultimately, refereeing is a largely thankless task, and there are thousands of referees in this country doing their utmost to control football matches of all levels of the game. But refereeing is a position of responsibility, of authority, and of utmost importance within the game. And ultimately, the sort of self-important bluster demonstrated by Mark Clattenburg does few favours to either his profession or the game in a broader sense. It is to be hoped that the Premier League, the Football League and the Football Association look very closely at comments such as these, even when they come from former referees. Many, many supporters are sick and tired of the extent to which professional football is continuing its slide towards becoming little more than a soap opera. It is to be hoped that other referees eschew the temptation to seek to become central characters themselves.