Let’s talk about Mark Clattenburg.
By now, most people have seen his comments about the now infamous “Battle of the Bridge” match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge in the spring of 2016. At the time, Spurs were the only team that had even the remotest chance of catching Leicester City for the Premier League title, and knew that anything less than a win would see the Foxes crowned champions.
Instead, the two teams battled to an extremely hard-fought, testy, and sometimes violent 2-2 draw. “Highlights” of the match, which was officiated by Clattenburg, include Mousa Dembele gouging the eye of Diego Costa, Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink getting shoved to the ground in a post-match scrum, and a Premier League record nine yellow cards issued to Tottenham — but with no ejections.
Clattenburg has been quiet about his role in the match until now, but opened up in an interview on NBC’s Men in Blazers podcast that probably did little to make himself look any better, or less complicit, in the eyes of either fan base, nearly two years after the match.
"I allowed them [Spurs] to self-destruct so all the media, all the people in the world went: 'Tottenham lost the title.'
"If I sent three players off from Tottenham, what are the headlines? 'Clattenburg cost Tottenham the title.' It was pure theatre that Tottenham self-destructed against Chelsea and Leicester won the title.
"I helped the game. I certainly benefited the game by my style of refereeing.
"Some referees would have played by the book; Tottenham would have been down to seven or eight players and probably lost and they would've been looking for an excuse.
"But I didn't give them an excuse, because my gameplan was: Let them lose the title."
I’ve seen one reading of Clattenburg’s comments online that suggest, based on his final sentence, that this is “proof” that Clattenburg entered the match with an agenda to have Spurs lose the title. I find that argument unconvincing on a number of levels, but especially dismiss the idea that a referee, generally considered one of the best in the Premier League at the time, would conspire to throw a match to one side or another. Yes, it happens, and soccer is full of match-fixing allegations. But I don’t think it happened here.
However, all officials make mistakes, and Mark Clattenburg made plenty in that match. Even so, it’s fair to say that Tottenham Hotspur were more often the aggressors vs. Chelsea and less often the aggrieved. Spurs had everything to lose in a fierce London Derby match, and they played like it, leaving everything on the field, but also putting in more than their fair share of hard fouls and challenges on their opponents.
Not that Chelsea were choirboys — at first blush, it was a minor miracle that nobody was sent off in that match on either side. And with the context of Clattenburg’s comments, now we know that it wasn’t a miracle at all.
Clattenburg’s comments don’t show a premeditated plan to give the title to Leicester at Tottenham’s expense, but it does come across to me as a tacit admission that not only did Clattenburg know he had lost control of the match early on, but that he then altered his refereeing game plan mid-stream to change the post-match narrative to make himself look better.
And that’s what I have a problem with.
Mark Clattenburg isn’t wrong. Had he started sending players off instead of issuing yellows (and Lord knows Tottenham probably should’ve had at least Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen sent off in that match) the narrative might have been about how Mark Clattenburg ruined the game. Instead, he says, Spurs probably weren’t winning that match, and he gave them just enough rope to hang themselves. He’s probably correct there, too.
But that’s an especially self-serving narrative, and makes him look much worse in hindsight.
Moreover, his argument is purile once you get below the surface. Sure, so he decided not to send off some Spurs players off that probably deserved it to make it seem like Spurs self-destructed instead of being affected by referee decisions. But Spurs didn’t lose that match, they drew. What happens if Harry Kane somehow pokes a scrummy goal home just before time? What happens if Christian Eriksen hits a 30-yard screamer? In effect, what Clattenburg is saying is that he failed to enforce the rules of the game by sending off Tottenham players that deserved it, and by doing so actually gave Spurs an undeserved chance to win the game.
Finally, Clattenburg’s argument glosses over the fact that he, with a couple of early calls and cards, might have prevented the match from spinning out of control to begin with. Clattenburg not only turned the attention back to himself, he tried to dodge responsibility for what happened at Stamford Bridge, and make himself look like the hero of the story. That’s perhaps the most damning thing about this whole incident: it didn’t have to happen this way.
But it did, Spurs dropped points, and lost the title. C’est la vie. I’m not interested in re-litigating the arguments that popped up in the wake of the Battle of the Bridge, nor am I making any sort of argument that Clattenburg cost Spurs the win and the chance at a Premier League title. But I am irritated that Clattenburg has made himself again the focal point of attention for a match in which he hardly came out smelling like a rose.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was directly asked about Clattenburg’s comments in a press conference on Tuesday. He declined to comment, but if you know Pochettino and have watched his press conferences before, you’ll know that his facial expression in that non-answer spoke volumes.
Mark Clattenburg probably should’ve been more like Mauricio Pochettino and just kept his mouth closed.