Why has Mark Clattenburg, our best referee, been cast into the wilderness?

It is obvious: high-profile, headline games are not going to Clattenburg

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The Independent Football

Last Thursday, on what was arguably the worst day of the season for the country’s increasingly embattled referees, Mark Clattenburg was the fourth official at Aston Villa against Crystal Palace. At least that was an improvement on his previous assignment, which with all attendant nods of respect to League Two, was Shrewsbury Town’s 0-0 draw with Wycombe Wanderers.

As the nation’s referees struggle with the demands of the Premier League, and what their former colleague Graham Poll has described as a “disastrous festive season” it was bewildering to find the man who is arguably the most capable of their number taking charge of a game in the fourth tier. But then not much of what has happened to Clattenburg over the last few months makes much sense.

There are many who regard Clattenburg as the best referee in the country after Howard Webb’s retirement – at the very least he is one of the leading two along with Martin Atkinson, who is the only other English official in the Uefa elite category. Certainly, Uefa seems to regard him as the English successor to Webb and assigned him a Europa League semi-final last season and then the Super Cup final in Cardiff between Real Madrid and Seville in August.

In 2012, Clattenburg was put in charge of the London Olympics gold medal match by Fifa and he has refereed a semi-final at the 2011 Under-20s World Cup. All these are considered considerable feathers in the cap of a referee, yet, more often than not this season, he has found himself steered away from the bigger Premier League games.

His highest-profile game has been Arsenal against Manchester City, in September. By contrast, Atkinson, his elite Uefa colleague, has been assigned to the Merseyside derby, Chelsea against Arsenal and Manchester United v Liverpool. The Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMO) argues that all games have something riding on them, and it is right in that respect, but nevertheless there is an obvious conclusion to be drawn: the high-profile, headline games are not going to Clattenburg.

The bigger picture is that Clattenburg is up against Atkinson for the only place among the referees at Euro 2016 and it makes you wonder which of the two the PGMO organisation, led by general manager Mike Riley and the Football Association, would rather get that place. Uefa makes its decisions independently but, equally, it wants its selected referees to be in charge of the big games in its domestic leagues.

Clattenburg might not be everyone’s cup of tea and it is true that he has not been helped by the controversy that has attended his career, including his suspension in 2008 over a failed personal business venture. This season there was the infamous debacle over his trip to see a performance by Ed Sheeran, whose unwitting role in the episode now makes him without doubt the most prominent singer-songwriter in the rich history of British football referees.

On that occasion Clattenburg broke the referees’ protocol by leaving The Hawthorns after West Bromwich’s game with Crystal Palace in his own car, in order that he could – famously – return to the North-east in time to catch the concert in question. On the way home he spoke to an aggrieved Neil Warnock on the phone, another breach of a protocol which dictates referees are supposed to have those conversations in person, with their assistants present.

Clattenburg was given a one-match ban for that transgression, which he duly served. The mood in the game was that it was not the first time that a referee had broken that particular rule. Looking back over his games this season, it is obvious Clattenburg had been busted down the hierarchy even before Sheeran-gate.

When you ask PGMO about Clattenburg’s situation, it dismisses the notion that he has been treated less favourably. PGMO points out that all the select group referees, of which Clattenburg is one, are expected to officiate at Football League games on occasion, and that there is no guarantee of a game every week.

Nevertheless, taking a Champions League referee to Shrewsbury Town in the midst of the most demanding, highly scrutinised run of fixtures in the league programme, while the refereeing fraternity are under pressure, takes some explaining.

Clattenburg’s style is different to the conventional approach, and he has not always toed the company line. He has been at the centre of controversy, although often through no fault of his own, especially when you consider his exoneration over the John Obi Mikel racism allegations or Southampton’s complaint over Adam Lallana. The decision to appoint him to a League Two game smacks of the petty internal politics of football, pursued in spite of the demands of the bigger picture.

Poll, a refereeing pundit who calls decisions as he sees them without worrying about bruising egos, wrote in his column in the Daily Mail that, although there was no official hierarchy of referees, Clattenburg was “the best referee in the country”. “He seems out of favour at the moment,” he wrote, “when he’s on the pitch, he outperforms others.”

The select group referees are due to meet again this week for their monthly get-together and one wonders how the morale stands after some howlers over the festive period. Poll described the current situation as the “worst performance level that I can remember”. PGMO would disagree and in these pages, Webb, now the technical director, said that their data gives correct decisions at 98.4 per cent – almost identical to the same stage last year.

Over the FA Cup weekend, the referees will have been marked according to the old assessment regime, with which they are more comfortable. That is to say, there is a former referee assessing them from the stand and he meets for a debriefing after the match before promptly sending in a report. It means that, for good or bad, the referee has some idea of his performance by the time he leaves the stadium.

Under the new evaluation system for referees, every decision is analysed by a team of assessors, as well as every decision they judge should have been made but wasn’t. There is no immediate face-to-face feedback and reports can take days to come back, during which time the referees themselves are left in limbo as to the official rating for their performance. It has proved unpopular with many.

In the meantime, judging by the list of referees’ appointments made for this weekend, Riley and PGMO have mustered their 10 currently most reliable referees to try to see off the present storm around bad decisions. Clattenburg is not among them and is, PGMO says, on annual leave. It will be intriguing to see where his next assignment takes him.