Who’s the Social Reformer in the Black?

10 Jan

It occurred to me recently that the current batch of premier league referees provide a neat analogy for the cast of The Wizard of Oz.  Howard Webb’s obviously the lion.  A big lad, lovely demeanour, but cowardice runs through him like a river.  Webb needs the Wizard of Oz to sort him out with a bit of bravery.  And no prizes for guessing that Martin Atkinson is the scarecrow.  A clueless idiot with no discernible brain.

You’re probably thinking Michael Oliver is Dorothy, aren’t you?  The youthful, kind and exuberant one; improving the lot of all that surrounds him.  While this is undoubtedly true, no blog of mine is going to talk about referees without dishing out the bulk of the praise to Phil Dowd.  Dowd might look more Middle Earth than Oz, but his uncompromising, no-questions-asked style of refereeing is the one I like the most.  So Phil gets to play Dorothy.

However, one premier league official resolutely defies such simple type-casting.  He’s far too complex.  Never mind The Wizard of Oz, this character has all the contextual layers and differing personality traits of a Dostoyevsky novel.  They call this man Clattenburg.

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Most football referees are content just to implement the 17 laws and five technical standards of the game.  At which point, pleased at a job well done, they cheerfully head back to their bungalow and tuck in to a microwave meal-for-one.  But not this one.

Mark Clattenburg is so much more than a referee.  He’s a social reformer.  Like Rowntree or Bevan.  The sporting branch of David Cameron’s Big Society.  A forward-thinker who doesn’t need anyone’s permission to make this world a better place.

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To understand Clattenburg, you have to understand the journey he’s been on.  Clattenburg arrived on our screens in 2004 as a slightly rotund, ruddy-faced figure.  He had the appearance of a public school games master who might just as easily have been bringing to order a game of Eton Fives as he was a Third Round Replay.  Life had been good to the man from Country Durham.  A career that had begun aged 15 as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award had taken him all the way up to the Select Group referees’ panel.  Clattenburg was in the big league; rubbing shoulders with the Ellerays, the D’Ursos and the Polls of the adjudicating world.

Then disaster struck.  In the summer of 2008, Clattenburg was dismissed by the referees’ governing body for reasons related to taking a string of companies under his stewardship into bankruptcy.  The timing of the dismissal couldn’t have been any worse – only weeks before he had been honoured with selection for the forthcoming Community Shield game.  Just as Clattenburg’s professional life was approaching its apex, a two-footed lunge in the business world had left his refereeing career in tatters.

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To everyone’s relief, the Professional Game Match Officials Board saw fit to reinstate Clattenburg in February 2009.  The old Clattenburg wasn’t back, though.  Instead, a different man emerged onto the field of play.  This one was slim, tanned and rocking a fashionable new mohawk.  He looked ten years younger.  Due to leaps in medical technology, the thinning top that Clattenburg had previously sported was gone.  And so too was the fear.  Richer for the experience of his financial mismanagement, Clattenburg wasn’t going to take any crap from these potty-mouthed footballers anymore.  Instead, he was going to educate them.

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The New Model Clattenburg first made his mark in a December 2009 clash between Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City.  Sick to the back teeth of one particularly irascible Welsh striker, the story goes that Clattenburg approached the City bench during half-time and asked: “How do you work with Craig Bellamy all week?”

We’ve all seen this ruse before.  It was classic “shaming in front of your peers”.  The sort of tactic you might use to stop a twelve year old from burping the alphabet.  Get his mates to start laughing at him, and maybe he’ll pack in the daft behaviour.

Clattenburg’s new role as moderator of the rich and famous didn’t get in the way of his refereeing duties.  He was still careful to ensure that he handed out two yellow cards to Bellamy in the second half.  Punishment that, having made clear to the City bench that he found Bellamy’s very presence intolerable, was perhaps of little surprise.

Good on him, though.  Craig Bellamy was a great servant to Manchester City, as he is to all his clubs.  But if ever someone epitomised the phrase “a whining arsehole”, it was Bellamy.  I regularly winced at Bellamy’s behavior despite looking at him through blue-tinted spectacles.  One can only imagine what the gentlemen with the whistles made of him.

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Wayne Rooney was the next miscreant in Clattenburg’s sightline.  In a match against Wigan, Rooney was seen to land a clear elbow on James McCarthy’s face as the two of them charged down a loose ball.  Any ordinary referee would have sent Rooney off.  But then where did being “ordinary” ever get any of the great social reformers?  “Ordinary” didn’t implement a national health service, free at the point of care for a post-war demographic, did it?  “Ordinary” didn’t provide universal suffrage and equality for women in the workplace.  “Ordinary” sure as sugar wasn’t going to tame this Nike-sponsored tearaway.

For a tough tiger like Rooney, sending him off would have been the worst possible thing to do and Clattenburg knew it.  Boys from the wrong side of the tracks love getting suspended; it’s a badge of honour.  Thankfully, Clattenburg had another trick up his sleeve.  The most powerful weapon of them all.  Love.

Rather than give Rooney the 4,000th red card of his career, Clattenburg took everyone in the DW Stadium by surprise and fixed England’s Number 9 with a hug.  The rationale was obvious.  Wayne didn’t need another early bath; what he really needed was a friendly squeeze from an authority figure.  I was acting up in the playground once and, instead of the usual 100 lines and a short stint outside the headmaster’s office, a rather matronly teacher opted for the more creative punishment of giving me a hug.  Mortified beyond belief, I was as good as gold for weeks.  And so, it transpired (for a while at least…), was Wayne.  2-nil to Clattenburg.

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And so to recent events.  Lifestyle coaching was probably the last thing on Adam Lallana’s mind as he contested various decisions in December’s clash against Everton.  However, noticing a marked uptick in the acerbic nature of Lallana’s dialogue from previous encounters, Clattenburg hit back with a warning about letting success go to your head.  “You’ve changed.  You didn’t use to be like this before you played for England,” remarked Clattenburg, with all the nervous energy of someone sensing they were about to be dumped by a loved one on the cusp of fame.

Lallana ought to have known better than to try it on with an official who was by now well known for refereeing the man as well as the player.  There was a subtle but very obvious undertone to Clattenburg’s retort.  We all knew what Clatts was really trying to say.  “Shut up, you floppy-haired chopper.  You and your pre-pubescent beard only got picked for England because it was a friendly and Theo Walcott was injured.  You’re a mid-table player at best and I have a much better haircut and tan than you”.

Being a cry-baby, La La went straight to his mother and grassed him up.  But the powers that be weren’t having any of it.  The Football Association told Lallana to dry his eyes and stop being such a sniveling hypocrite.  Or words to that effect.

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Like anyone else in the education sector, Clattenburg knows that he’s dealing with the leaders of the future.  Today’s mouthy winger is tomorrow’s first team coach.  That racist centre-back you dealt with a few weeks back will be the manager of side battling against relegation one day.  Getting through to troubled youths at the earliest possible stage is key.  Solve the problem early on and they won’t spend the rest of their lives causing trouble for themselves and others around them.  Adam Lallana may not know it yet, but Mark Clattenburg is probably the only reason why Lallana isn’t in a young offender’s institute.

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Twelve months from now, when Lallana is still languishing on a tiny handful of international caps, Clattenburg has nicely teed up the narrative for a great running joke.  Every time Lallana treats him to another foul-mouthed tirade, all Clattenburg has to do is gently enquire on how his England career is progressing.  Sometimes, in a room full of arseholes, it helps to be the biggest arsehole.  If I were Clattenburg, I’d whisper “superstar” in his Lallana’s ear every time I whizzed past him in my shiny black outfit.

Graham Poll tells a story about how Kevin Keegan once stormed into the Officials’ Dressing Room after a particularly feisty encounter.  Keegan’s blood was racing as he launched into a rant about various mistakes that Poll and his assistants had supposedly made during the game.  Poll sat there quietly until Keegan eventually ran out of steam and headed back towards the exit.  At which point, just as Keegan was on his way out the door, Poll politely enquired, “Kevin.  Did it hurt when you fell off your bike in Superstars?”

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Players (and managers) need to get on board with the idea that, if they give it out, then they are going to have to learn to take it too.  Respect, as Adam Lallana is finding out, cuts both ways.

There’s a better person in all of us and sometimes it just needs a Tier 1 referee to tease them out.  Ask the footballer to retreat the full ten yards and you will have a correctly taken free-kick.  Ask the human being to retreat the full ten yards and you will have correctly taken free-kicks for life.  If all it takes is a few terse words from Uncle Mark to keep a multimillionaire 23 year old’s feet on the ground, then go for it I say.

I believe it was that other great social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.  We’ve all heard this quote, but how many of us actually put our good intentions into practice?  Mark Clattenburg is out there making the world a better place.  One premiership footballer at a time.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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 “Hey Adam, could you get me Stevie G’s autograph at the next England camp?”

“Hey Adam, could you get me Stevie G’s autograph at the next England camp?”

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