Three things struck me about the newspaper column Mark Clattenburg wrote this week about Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool and Manchester United.
The first I liked – we don’t get to hear from current referees so the fact he said that he thought United players had initiated contact in winning up to five of their 11 penalties this season was intriguing.
The second disappointed me because it’s not ‘clever’, as he put it, to win a spot-kick that way, it’s just cheating. And the third…well, the third left me absolutely flabbergasted.
Clattenburg made the point that he once gave three penalties against United at Old Trafford, ironically against arch-rivals Liverpool, and, if he’d just left it there, he could have walked away having proved that there’s no bias from referees towards the Red Devils.
But in his pay-off line he added: “But David Moyes was the manager at the time – I’m not sure that would have happened when Fergie was there.”
And, in doing so, he seemingly undid everything he’d said to that point, reinforcing the suspicions of thousands of fans.
Clattenburg is one of the best officials we have had in the past 20 years – a professional Premier League referee who has taken charge of a Champions League final and the final of Euro 2016.
He now offers his opinions on refereeing decisions on television and was the head of refereeing in Saudi Arabia. So he must qualify that last comment publicly or face an investigation.
Imagine if I’d scored a hat-trick for Liverpool against United in my Anfield days and then written in this column that I’d been on muscle-bulkers at the time.
I’d be censured and rightly so, which is why Clattenburg needs at the very least to explain what he meant.
In how many other games did he feel under pressure from managers?
His words don’t just raise questions about Sir Alex Ferguson but about all of them – Jose Mourinho at his best, Pep Guardiola at his best, maybe even Jurgen Klopp at his best.
For one of the highest-profile referees we have had in this country to say that the identity of a manager had an influence on his decisions is very disturbing. His words were almost an admission that his treatment of Manchester United depended upon who their manager was at the time.
I remember current Newcastle boss Steve Bruce coming on my old
talkSPORT phone-in and saying: “As manager of Wigan, I don’t have any doubts there is a bias towards bigger clubs. I’m not naming names but I’ve seen it happen.”
Some may have thought it was typical small-club mentality but, after Clattenburg’s words, maybe they’ll think again.
And remember that Clattenburg was talking about a fixture between Liverpool and Manchester United. This wasn’t a big club versus a smaller one; this was a clash of the titans.
His comments obviously won’t start a breakdown of trust between referees and fans because that breakdown started long ago, but it definitely worsens it. And his words will put referee Paul Tierney massively under the spotlight when Liverpool host United at Anfield this afternoon.
I wish Tierney all the best.
I’d love to see him stop for the cameras on his way back down the tunnel after the game and say something like: “By the way, I’ve just refereed that game as I should do – with honesty and integrity. What Mark Clattenburg said was a disgrace’.”
He won’t be allowed to, of course, but that would go a long way towards repairing the damage that Clattenburg has caused.
Instead, everyone will read Clattenburg’s comments, nod to themselves, and think: ‘They’re all at it,’ and that just isn’t good for the game.