Jim White

Technology would have prevented Clattenburg row

Jim White

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A couple of years ago I was invited by the Premier League referees to officiate at one of their internal games. It was a public relations exercise, designed to show members of the press how hard the ref's job was.

What I remember most about the day, however, was not so much the abuse, which reached levels of inventiveness barely matched by the scriptwriters of The Thick of It. It was the contents of the car park.

I had driven to the meet in a decidedly nondescript Renault. All the refs, however, had turned up in top of the range BMWs and Audis. The head ref was in a new Range Rover Vogue, £45,000 worth of machine. All of their motors bore personalised number plates, some of which alluded to the nature of their work. REF 1, REF 10 and REF 100 were all there.

Walking through the car park, clocking the gleaming examples of mechanical engineering, I asked one of the officials how on earth they afforded such swanky cars - vehicles way above their income levels. "You have to find a way to buy a decent car," he said. "Really important. You're not going to gain the respect of a modern Premier League player if you turn up in an old banger. They're not going to take you seriously. They'll think you're a joker."

Clearly as a strategy it is not working. Whatever the quality of their transport, there is precious little respect among players for those who officiate matches. And the gap between the two groups will have only been widened by the fallout from Chelsea's game with Manchester United this weekend.

The first thing to be said is if Mark Clattenburg did say what he has been accused of saying, then it is right he should be punished. Frankly, if he is found to have spoken to somebody as he is alleged to have done to John Obi Mikel, he has no place in the game.

But if he didn't — and he and his assistants are strenuously denying the charge, claiming to be "shocked and angry" — then he is the victim of a breakdown in respect that is close to terminal.

Yet the truth is: it need never have happened. There is absolutely no reason why an altercation, in which things may have been said, should take place after a football match. Not if those in authority used a bit of common sense and embraced technology.

For a moment consider the conditions under which referees now work. The game is quicker, sharper and more attack-minded than it has ever been. It is also under much greater critical scrutiny. Yet refs are given no assistance to help them. The bizarre situation they find themselves in is that their masters refuse to embrace technology even as its very existence utterly undermines the performance of those in the middle.

Every televised game, the viewer is at an advantage over the referee. Anyone watching television and seeing Fernando Torres go down on Sunday immediately was in a better position to judge what had happened than Clattenburg. They would have seen that United's Jonny Evans tripped him and therefore it was a foul and not a simulation. That he should not have been dismissed.

Watching in real time, from a not very good angle, Clattenburg made a judgement call that was wrong. If a video ref was in place he could have quickly been consulted. But there wasn't one and Clattenburg made a game-changing decision that retrospectively made him look incompetent.

What other business would allow technology to be used to destabilise their representatives when it could so easily be embraced to help them? Not tennis or cricket, where umpires' authority is hugely enhanced by Hawkeye. Not rugby or American football where referees can call on video assistance and thus retain the participants' respect. Remember when John McEnroe used to rage against umpires at Wimbledon? No one does that anymore.

Roberto Di Matteo was right to be absolutely incandescent about Sunday. Poor decisions cost him the game. Poor decisions which need never have been made.

More than that, because everyone watching on television was in a position immediately to see that the referee had got it so badly wrong, it meant Clattenburg's integrity was called into question. Why would he make such an error? He must have a motive and purpose. The conjecture was quickly workshopped up on phone-ins and Twitter: he was part of a wider plot to do down Chelsea, led by an FA still smarting from the John Terry affair. Besides, is it not a known fact that all referees are under the control of Alex Ferguson?

Thus — with the widespread benefit of slo-mo, is human error quickly spun into conspiracy theory. And worse, into open dispute. Di Matteo's fury was understandably shared by his players who confronted the man who they blamed for their defeat. It was unlikely they did so in order to congratulate him on his performance.

Now the gap is seemingly growing unbridgeable between referees — unanimously backing Clattenburg - and Chelsea — who they accuse of previous in assaulting the integrity of officials (remember Anders Frisk, they say, hounded to retirement by representatives of the club). Meanwhile the Society of Black Lawyers and the Metropolitan Police are adding to the mix.

It is an ugly snarl-up, a Clattenstorm that threatens finally to detonate the relationship of trust between the official and the player. And the ridiculous thing is it need never have happened. If the game's administrators had merely embraced technology instead of fearing it, then a tense and aggressive standoff would never have taken place.

Get the technology onside and the Premier League could issue their officials with bicycle clips and still maintain the respect of the game. In the meantime, as Ferguson put it yesterday, there is only one message for Lee Mason, the man in charge of tonight's Chelsea/United rerun in the League Cup: good luck.

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