I don’t remember the exact game when I first noticed Mark Clattenburg as a referee. What I remember was more a feeling. That he was different. That he let the game flow more than other referees. That even in hard-fought matches he didn’t call all the fouls and that he didn’t give yellow cards. And I remember writing in to the Tuesday Club podcast, to Tayo, before a big Arsenal match where he was going to be the referee and just saying a single word: Crapenburg.
I didn’t hate him, because Arsenal’s record with Clattenburg was actually really good, but I wasn’t a fan of his refereeing style. I felt like he embodied what a lot of people think that Premier League officials are like; he let too much go, that he let the games get too physical.
So when he spoke to the Men in Blazers podcast and revealed almost immediately how managers and players loved his style because he’s a “typical northerner” and would rather talk than just “dish out cards”. I wasn’t at all surprised. That was the Clattenburg I remembered. The man in the middle, trying not to be the centre of attention but becoming a part of the game, influencing the game through his refereeing style. Or as Roger Bennett puts it in the introductions “Football’s first rock star referee”.
At the start of the interview Clattenburg reveals what it’s like to be a referee in England. He speaks about what it takes to get to the Premier League and how he started out in some rinky little Northern league where everyone is trying to bully him, intimidate him, where people are screaming at him, and everyone hates him.
Clattenburg even admits that when he was younger he let the players push him around a bit. In one match he says “because he (Roy Keane) screamed at us (the refereeing crew) so loudly I gave a corner because I was so petrified of him”. It’s actually a very humanizing moment and not at all something I could criticize him for. Who wouldn’t be petrified of Roy Keane screaming at you? Especially if it was one of your very first games as a top flight referee.
That’s what refs deal with on a daily basis. They are abused and hated. On the rare occasions that they are praised, it’s usually only when they stay out of the game and let the players play. That was what Clattenburg chose to do most of the time.
Clattenburg also reveals how much hard work goes into being a referee. Especially in a big game.
He would do his research before the games, watching tape, and seeing where players were trying to gain an advantage by cheating. He described a game when Pierluigi Collina was his observer. It was a match between Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Collina asked him if he’d prepared for the match and Clattenburg replied “yes, I watched the first leg six times”. Collina then opened his notebook computer and asked Clatts if he had seen this tactic: Alcantara was deliberately standing offside on free kicks in order to impede Pique from being able to head the ball away. He blew for a free kick early in the game and before the ball was struck, Clattenburg told the players he was watching Alcantara or anyone else for that block.
Fans rarely think about what referees have to deal with of how much work they put into a match. Fans are selfish. We don’t even really want an unbiased official. You can say you do but how many of you have laughed when you heard someone say “I really just want a terrible handball decision to go our way so that we can beat Chelsea in the last minute of the game and make Mourinho cry”? Maybe you’re a pure soul but I think most fans don’t want an unbiased referee, they want one that’s biased toward their team.
Refereeing is a thankless task but it’s when Bennet asks Clattenburg if his games had a “personality” and that’s when he drops the quote which is making the rounds right now. It’s about the Battle of Stamford Bridge – the match between Tottenham and Chelsea in which Tottenham lost the title to Leicester. He says,
“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. There 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 send three players off from Tottenham, what’s the headlines? ‘Clattenburg costs Tottenham the title.’ And it was pure theatre that Tottenham self-destructed against Chelsea and Leicester win the title.”
This is both a revealing and highly problematic quote.
He’s revealing the amount of pressure that referee’s face. Who would want to be a referee? My daughter asked me that after watching what was her second ever soccer match. A child could see that this is a thankless task. That no one wants to be your friend. No one likes you. And no matter what decisions you make, they will always be wrong. So, I get why he did what he did in that match; he didn’t want the story to be about him.
But what a truly insane thing to do. Think about what he’s saying. He’s saying that he let Tottenham beat the crap out of Chelsea, literally let them try to kick Chelsea off the pitch. He’s saying that he ignored the laws of the game, refused to give out cards that he knows he should have given out, and endangered the safety of all 22 players because he didn’t want to be blamed for the outcome. And he’s saying he did it out of some genius foreknowledge that Tottenham would implode.
Do you remember the match? Tottenham had 9 players booked. The match was boiling over and Clattenburg lost all semblance of control in the match. There was a touchline fracas set off by a terrible tackle by Danny Rose on Willian and in the melee Dembele stuck his finger in Diego Costa’s eye! I think it’s safe to say that while the match was “pure theatre”, as Clattenburg puts it, it was the worst officiated match in Premier League history.
Players could have even been crippled by Clattenburg’s inaction. Us Arsenal supporters know better than most that when officials let the games just go, that the players end up in the hospital with their leg dangling by a string. And worse, Clattenburg says that he lets players get physical in the Premier League because that’s what we like to see: dangerous tackles. This is a man officiating not based on agreed upon laws but based upon his perception of what we want to see.
And not only that but Tottenham imploded when their players started fouling all over the place. Maybe the Spurs fans would have been upset at Clattenburg for rightly sending off three players but the rest of the world would have seen that match, which I watched in horror, and said that the red cards were well deserved. The player’s making reckless and dangerous challenges were what decided the outcome of the game.
And what of the Chelsea players? What of Leicester? What if Tottenham didn’t allow that 83rd minute goal? Didn’t Clattenburg, in reality, give Spurs a massive advantage in that game by allowing them to be ridiculously physical? Of course he did.
As fans we all feel like our team has been cheated by the officials. But to have an official admit that he went into a match with a pre-determined outcome and that he let a match get so far out of control that a man stuck his fingers in another man’s eye is incredible. Literally, this is an incredible story. I can’t believe him as a witness. That he intentionally just stopped refereeing because he knew that Tottenham would implode, which would mean that Leicester would win the League, and he could be a huge part of their fairytale script but not in an overt way, until today when he reveals that he was sort of the mastermind of that match. The outcome of which he scripted by giving a massive advantage to Tottenham by not sending their players off.
He’s since tried to clarify his statements saying that they were taken out of context and that he was only speaking to educate people. I listened to the podcast. The comments are exactly in context. He was bragging about that game and how it epitomized his refereeing style.
I guess we should thank Clatts for educating us. Up until now fans have only wondered if the referees in England were scripting games and have only wondered if the referees knew how to apply the laws of the game. Now we know. Refereeing in England has a massive problem.
P.S. To be crystal clear: this is Clattenburg bragging about throwing a game according to a script he decided before kickoff by deliberately not applying the Laws of the Game. We need to know how many other games he decided beforehand, what the PGMOL knew about Clattenburg’s “maverick” style, if any other officials have done the same, and what PGMOL is going to do to ensure something like this never happens again.