Sam Wallace: Southampton’s high-handed complaint about Mark Clattenburg lifts a lid on the way clubs seek to influence who referees their games

Is Lallana so sensitive about a tart response from a ref who gets sworn at countlessly?

You can understand why Southampton tried it. After all, some of the biggest, well-established Premier League clubs have been dictating for years which referees they want to officiate their games.

When Southampton issued that statement on Friday that they did not want Mark Clattenburg to referee any of their games while an unspecified investigation took place, they were simply following a long and ignoble tradition that has embarrassed the Premier League, its chief executive Richard Scudamore and the referees’ boss Mike Riley for some time. The one that says clubs can lobby for referees not to take charge of their games.

Like the younger sibling who has seen his older brother plunder the biscuit tin unauthorised, Southampton, in their second Premier League season after a seven-year absence, have been set a bad example. It does not excuse their desire to tell the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL) which referee they don’t want, but it goes a long way to explaining why they think they might have the right.

The referees’ organisation has done the clubs’ bidding in the past. How could one forget Martin Atkinson’s expulsion from the kingdom of Sir Alex Ferguson for the unforgivable offence of being so roundly insulted by the former Manchester United manager after a defeat to Chelsea that the Football Association were duty bound to give the Scot a five-match touchline ban?

Atkinson is a Fifa referee who would ordinarily have been expected to officiate United games but did not do so for around 10 months. His case was not the only one. The Everton league game against Southampton eight days ago which caused the controversy between Clattenburg and Adam Lallana was the referee’s first game at Goodison Park since the 2007 Merseyside derby in which he sent off two of the home side, failed to give them a late penalty and missed a red-card offence by Dirk Kuyt.

That was more than six years ago. It was an absurdly long period to keep Clattenburg away, to the extent that one wonders if there was an unofficial edict that he was unsuitable to referee Everton games.

Who knows how many secret agreements there are in place? When it comes to referees lower down the hierarchy it is much harder to tell which clubs have put the evil eye on them. Their controversies generate fewer back-page stories. Their absences from certain clubs are not so obvious to spot, for example, as a Fifa-list referee being kept away from Old Trafford.

It will be curious to see how soon Howard Webb referees Manchester United again after David Moyes’ attack on his “scandalous” decision not to give Ashley Young a penalty for that challenge by Hugo Lloris last Wednesday. Previously maligned as pro-United, the Spurs game was Webb’s second United match of the season. Over the last three seasons his count of United matches has been four, six and four. Will he get the same this season?

Of course Webb should go back to Old Trafford, as soon as possible, if for nothing else, to show the biggest club in the country that the Select Group referees are not to be pushed around – starting with the man regarded as the best; just as Clattenburg should have gone straight back to Chelsea after the John Obi Mikel affair was resolved in 2012. In light of his exoneration by Riley over the Lallana issue, he should be in charge of a Southampton game at the next available opportunity.

It would help if these appointments were accompanied by a robust statement from PGMOL to remind the clubs that it is an independent institution that has a duty to the probity of the game, not the whims of Premier League managers. Referees make mistakes, some more than others. But that cannot be the basis for a system of lobbying that allows clubs to dictate who they don’t want in charge.

How does this referee filtering work? One imagines that a club chief executive, chairman or manager makes his feelings known to the Premier League and that institution – effectively an instrument for the 20 clubs – passes the message on to Riley or, in the past, his predecessor Keith Hackett.

Perhaps the system is so smooth that no one has to tip the wink any more; that every referee controversy triggers a process in which everyone knows their role and duly obeys it in Orwellian fashion.

As for Southampton, it would appear that the club have a list of grievances with Riley beyond the Lallana incident and having seen others receive apologies or have certain referees blocked, want those complaints recognised. To go into battle over the Lallana episode suggests a club that has lost a sense of perspective.

If all Clattenburg did in response to being sworn at was book Lallana and offer the opinion that the player had changed since getting an England cap, then it shows that at least one person had not lost his sense of humour. Referees are so often berated for not being able to relate to players. Yet as soon as they do, the world responds as if they have heard the local priest curse.

On top of that, Lallana does not need this kind of episode following him around as his career flourishes in the Premier League. Is he really so sensitive about a tart response from a referee who himself gets sworn at countless times a game?

Southampton have said that they do not want Clattenburg to referee their games “until this matter is properly resolved” – which presumably means resolved in their favour. The problem here is that Riley has already told them the matter has been resolved and that no action is being taken.

The other option open to Clattenburg, when sworn at over that 89th-minute penalty claim, would have been to send Lallana off for “offensive, insulting or abusive language”. In the moment in question, Clattenburg most likely reasoned that he had taken so much abuse from players over his career that a little bit more would not make a great deal of difference.

Of course, a controversial sending-off for bad language would have had English football up in arms again. Questions would have been asked as to whether all players who swore would now have to be dismissed in the interests of that pundits’ favourite, “consistency” (an impossible dream). Clattenburg would have been kept away from Southampton games for a spell.

You can see how referees might feel that, either way, it is they who pay the price.

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