The Last Word: Clattenburg shows refs are human - News & Comment - Football - The Independent

The Last Word: Clattenburg shows refs are human

The primal scream of a man denied natural justice contrasts vividly with Chelsea's self-serving crisis-management response

Mark Clattenburg returns to work today, with a clarity of conscience denied his persecutors. Television cameras and telephoto lenses will doubtlessly capture every nuance of his role as fourth official at White Hart Lane.

Though such an assignment traditionally involves accepting the casual indignities inflicted upon a human punchbag, Clattenburg will be regarded with exaggerated respect. Since we live in an age of orchestrated emotion, he may even receive a standing ovation.

Fair-minded observers will excuse any indulgence, because this feels like a watershed moment. Something indefinable but important changed the moment Clattenburg was denied natural justice by the arid logic of grey men in thrall to the statute book after being accused of racially abusing Chelsea's John Obi Mikel.

His stark eloquence will not shame Chelsea's corporate gargoyles, but it challenged anyone who believes in common decency. Word by word, line by line, Clattenburg shed the stereotype of the referee as a functionary rendered anonymous by authority. The accusations against him were so baseless, so flimsy and potentially malign, that his response reminded us of the dangers of denying him a voice.

Too late we heard the primal scream of someone who, by any standards, has been wronged. We sensed the heart beneath the red card in the breast pocket. We saw the human being whose working life involves being abused by spittle-flecked simpletons.

Referees are slaves to a flawed value system, expected to suffer in silence. Yet football's refusal to allow them to defend themselves against ritual accusations of incompetence, or worse, is unsustainable.

They have a mission to explain, a cause to champion. They have the opportunity to redress the balance, to speak up, not just for the elite referee, but for the young official who cowers in a car park as ignorant amateur footballers, or their parents, seek retribution.

The mood of militancy among Clattenburg's colleagues is marked, and entirely understandable. It may even sweep away Mike Riley, whose control of the snappily entitled Professional Game Match Officials Board is under unprecedented scrutiny.

Riley is a deeply unimpressive, barely visible, advocate for his cause. His instinct for opaqueness, his mistrust of candour and his apparent inability to think imaginatively or laterally is a source of increasing irritation.

His first test will be the charade of the so-called reconciliation process, initiated by Chelsea's chairman, Bruce Buck. The urbane American lawyer is far from stupid. He understands the contempt in which his club, and his calling, are held.

Yet his role as consigliere to Roman Abramovich gives him no option but to adhere to the crisis-management plan which produced a breathtakingly self-serving statement in the aftermath of Clattenburg's acquittal.

The pay-off line is worth reproducing, because of its craven nature: "All those directly involved have been subjected to scrutiny over the last weeks. Chelsea FC now hopes that all concerned can continue to carry out their duties without prejudice."

Not a chance. This was not impugning a man because he had a hair-weave, drove a BMW M5 or had problems with an electrical business. This was a slur which challenged Clattenburg's status, personally and professionally. It defined him as an unworthy member of the human race.

We are in a state of social flux. Public debate is being driven by the twin evils of institutionalised child abuse and similarly entrenched racism.

Lord McAlpine, quite correctly, is receiving legal recompense for being subjected to wholly unsubstantiated slurs regarding the former issue. Clattenburg is receiving no such support, or recognition of his suffering, by association with the latter. Such disparity cannot be right.

I am not naïve enough to believe that knee-jerk antagonism will cease. Football is tribal, and emotionally consuming. But the next time you are seized by an urge to share your suspicions of the referee's onanist tendencies, pause for thought.

He might not be such a bad bloke, after all.

Football's plotlines beyond belief

The heroes have feet of clay encased in pink-and-cerise boots. The villains are grotesque creatures lacking any redeeming human virtues.

The storylines they create make the morality tales of TV wrestling appear positively Shakespearean. They are simple to understand, universal in nature and consistently provocative.

To misquote H L Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the football public. Love or hate what it represents, the Premier League is box-office dynamite.

Even by its absurd standards it has tested to destruction our ability to suspend disbelief this week. The next James Bond blockbuster will struggle to create an ogre as convincing as Roman Abramovich, or a minion as singularly unattractive as Ron Gourlay.

They've built a statue of Sir Alex Ferguson and a bonfire on which to burn the effigy of Rafa Benitez. Along comes 'Arry, riding to the rescue, metaphorically at least, in a Reliant Robin.

This is why the English game is easier to sell than illicit tobacco in a maximum-security prison. The latest nation to purchase TV rights, Burma, is a case in point.

The ruling military junta failed to buy Manchester United but they know Match of the Day cries freedom.


Peter Herbert has demeaned himself and diminished the worthy ambitions of the Society of Black Lawyers. Let us hope that he chooses a contemplative silence and unburdens the police from the demands of his gesture politics.

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