Mark Clattenburg, football
Home  »    »    »   Mark Clattenburg reveals how Ed Sheeran got him banned from refereeing for a week, talks ‘leg-breaking’ threats, shocking sideline incident & explains how ref social culture has changed

Mark Clattenburg reveals how Ed Sheeran got him banned from refereeing for a week, talks ‘leg-breaking’ threats, shocking sideline incident & explains how ref social culture has changed

| 24.05.2022

Former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg has been in charge of some of the biggest matches in football and has looked back on his career in an exclusive interview with Ladbrokes.

In part one, he talked about Mike Dean retiring, now in part two, he starts off by revealing how an unexpected call from Neil Warnock caused problems.

PGMOL banned me from reffing for a week… for going to see Ed Sheeran

My garden got looked after for one week once upon a time when I was refereeing in the Premier League because they put me on leave. It was rubbish, really, but these were the type of people we were dealing with at the PGMOL at the time. I’ve always respected the rules, however, referees were doing things, they’d leave matches with their parents or family so that they didn’t have to go back to the hotel. It’s not the way things were supposed to be, but it was a gentleman’s agreement between us.

Sometimes, for example, if I was refereeing at Arsenal and heading back up to the north-east after the game, I wasn’t going to trek across north London to go back to the hotel and travel home from there, when I’m so close to King’s Cross train station and can just jump on a train back up north.

A lot of the referees would jump out at some stage of the journey back to our hotel, perhaps near train stations so that they could get home quicker – it wasn’t rare for us to do that.

Anyway, on this one occasion, I was reffing a game between West Brom and Crystal Palace. Before the match I’d asked West Brom if I could get a car parking pass, which wasn’t a problem. So I leave my car at The Hawthorns and then one of my colleagues took me to the team hotel so I could travel back to the ground with my officials. I was in the team hotel preparing for the match four hours before kick-off, as we always would. We got the people carrier to the stadium as a group so no security measures were breached.

After the match, I stuck around for 30 minutes, filling out my reports and doing everything I needed to do. After that, I left the stadium and headed back up to Newcastle because I had tickets to see Ed Sheeran. I knew if I headed back with my team to the hotel, into Birmingham, and then travelled back up north, I wouldn’t have made it back in time.

So I left in my car, got onto the motorway, and during the journey home I had a call from an unknown number. I pull over and pick up and it was Neil Warnock, who was Palace’s manager at the time. He was questioning my performance, in particular one decision he thought I’d got wrong. He was upset, and instead of doing what most coaches do, which was go through the delegate, he decided he wanted to speak to me directly, so he got my number from someone and called me there and then. Instead of killing me in the media, he decided to speak to me privately.

Ed Sheeran

He’d had media obligations after the game and my door was always open to him if he’d wanted to speak to me in person. If I’d have known he wanted to speak to me, of course I wouldn’t have left the ground, but because it had been half an hour, I just assumed I was good to go.

The next day, I called my management team and told them Neil had spoken to me after the game on the phone. I had to report that to them because of the manner of how it happened, from an unknown number, a manager was speaking directly to me. They told me I shouldn’t have answered the call. I said “but how was I to know?” You know, it was an unknown number; was I supposed to just put the phone down when I found out it was Neil? I wasn’t going to do that.

Anyway, they found out during that call that I’d left the ground on my own to go up to the Ed Sheeran concert, and I hadn’t gone back to the hotel. I didn’t think I’d breached the rules, especially when I knew that other referees had done a lot more than that. Next thing I know, the list of appointments had come out for the next round of games, and I wasn’t on it. I wasn’t even down as a fourth official.

When I spoke to the management, they told me I was given a one-match ban for going to an Ed Sheeran gig, which I just thought was absolutely ridiculous.

At the end of the day, this was how petty some of the things were as a referee. Not everyone was treated the same, I know I was treated differently. Not all referees would be publicly suspended for one-match for doing what I did; the PGMOL were certainly happy enough to leak that story to the newspapers. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but unfortunately the management team clearly thought they’d make an example of me. It was all just a bit sad, really, because it just damaged relationships even more between me and them.

It was good publicity for Ed Sheeran, but not so much for me. Was the concert good, though? Yeah, it was great. I’m seeing him again in a couple of weeks! At least this time I can go and not worry about getting banned for it!

A player once told me they were going to break my legs after a match…

I remember how lonely I felt in some of those dressing rooms in the early days, essentially I’m a kid out there on my own and I’ve got to manage a game on a Sunday morning between a load of blokes who are a lot older than me, most of who had probably been out the night before. I used to get the most horrible feeling in my stomach walking out, knowing I had to pass everyone. The worst part about it was the stares, because the players wanted to know who was reffing the game.

I was young, you know, I was 16 or 17 at the time, refereeing men’s football was very, very intimidating. They’re staring you up and down while you find two people on the sides to act as your assistants. They’ll stand on the halfway line with a tab in their one hand and a flag in the other. Half the time they’re flagging the wrong half and things like that! You had to accept it; it’s just how it was.

I remember one situation in particular which was really difficult for me. I was isolated, on my own, young and inexperienced. It was in the Morpeth Sunday League. One player in particular had abused me so much during the game, I decided to take the easier option and not send him off. And then he started kicking players and abusing me again. I mean, he gave me no choice in the end; I just said enough was enough and I showed him a red card.

Mark Clattenburg, football

He threatened me right there. He told me he was going to break my legs after the match. I was so scared. I was 17 at most. It was so scary; I felt awful. I don’t know how I managed to referee the last 20 minutes; he was stood on the sideline trying to intimidate me.

All I could think about was my exit plan. At the final whistle, I was going to just run to my car, get in it as fast as I could and leave. I don’t even think I stuck around to receive my match fee! I just decided that I wanted to be out of there. The moment I finished the match, I was avoiding all conflict, avoiding going near the dressing rooms, and I just decided to get out of there.

People asked me why I carried on after that, but it was because I loved it. Why was I going to let one individual spoil what I loved doing? That sort of thing, to that extreme, was rare.

I stepped in as ref for a mate’s son’s team as a favour, one parent was giving me stick all game so I dropped my whistle in front of him and told him to take over!

Those extreme incidents, while they’re not nice at all to be a part of, are pretty rare. One which stands out to me actually happened while I was a Premier League referee. I remember one of my good friends managed a team in Sunderland. He asked if I’d ref his junior side because it was an important match. I can’t remember exactly which game I was reffing on the Saturday, but it was in the top flight of English football, and then on the Sunday morning I’m at a junior game in Sunderland.

I didn’t have to be there, but I was doing a favour for my friend and also for the children. You know, it was nice for them to come away from the game saying a Premier League referee had officiated their game.

All of the sudden I was getting abused by a parent on the side of the pitch. There was nothing of note really going on in the match, it wasn’t really that important a game, but he was giving me stick. I had the confidence, though, and like I said, I knew I didn’t need to be there. I was doing a favour for a friend. So I walked over to confront the guy who was abusing me.

He said I was rubbish yesterday and I was rubbish today, throwing in a couple of swear words for good measure as well. I just got my whistle out and dropped it in front of him. “You can take over.” I walked off. I’d had enough.

As I started walking off, all of the parents ganged up on this guy and got him removed. So while he thought he was being clever, he actually ended up embarrassing himself and getting kicked off the pitch. I wasn’t there to be abused. I just said to him “you try it – if you think you’re better than me, here’s my whistle, go on, give it a go…”

It was nice that everyone took my side in that incident and got him removed, and we were able to get on with things and finish the game. You try and analyse people and in that scenario I just thought it was probably him just trying to relive his own youth through his son. He didn’t make it as a football player so he wants his son to make it, and then he vents his anger out on the referee. This is what’s sad about society and culture; there’s always someone to blame.

Referee socials? The modern-day ref is more likely to have an energy drink… I preferred a beer!

Us referees, we’re all individuals – we’re not best friends, that’s a fact. We’re in a working environment where we meet up every two weeks, it’s not like you’re in the office every day with your colleagues and you can go for a drink after work… it doesn’t really work like that.

By the time you get to the end of the season, it’s a bit of an anti-climax – most of the time things are already wrapped up. Last weekend was special because there was still so much at stake across the board, so it was a really exciting time for everyone. It’s a credit to English football and the standard and competitiveness; you know, Newcastle United had nothing to play for, but they went to Burnley and got a result. Crystal Palace similarly didn’t have a lot to play for but they went and beat Man United.

But going back to your average final weekends and matchdays of the season, when you blow your whistle for the final time in a campaign, you’re tired, you’re fatigued. But for the top international referees, it doesn’t end there; you’ve got tournaments like the Nations League taking place, and before you know it you’re back in pre-season training.

Mark Clattenburg, football

Going back to the nights out, though, and from a social point of view… yeah, there probably are one or two referees who like each other and will probably meet up, but in general that never really happens – other than the Christmas parties. We’d never have a party at the end of the season.

It’s all changed so much though. Years ago we had some really good bashes, we could kick back and have a bit of fun. They would always be at the start of the week where there wouldn’t be fixtures, so you had plenty of time to recover for the next weekend. But the way the Premier League is nowadays, there’s basically a game on every day of the week around Christmas time, so there’s not really a chance for everyone to get together. Sometimes there’s even been games going on while we’ve been at our Christmas party, so some refs were missing out.

There was certainly a drinking culture when I was a young referee, when you had some of the older, experienced referees who liked a beer. But the modern-day referee concentrates more on their fitness and their diets. The younger referee is more likely to have an energy drink than a beer, whereas I was always the opposite! The game’s changed so much.

The key piece of advice for young referees…

Every child wants to play professional football, but when I hit around 14 or 15, I accepted I wasn’t going to be good enough. And then my school teacher told us about a Duke of Edinburgh Award where they were going to sacrifice the payment for us to go on this refereeing course. I loved the sound of it. A couple of the lads, I think, just did it because our teacher told us to, but I really liked the sound of it. I started refereeing junior football and I actually enjoyed it. Plus, as a young lad, I was getting £6 a match, which was great for me.

I loved it; it kept me fit, it kept me interested in football, and then things just started to happen really quickly for me. I got promoted to an assistant referee of amateur football in the north east, which was a big step-up for me, especially at such an early age.

I can remember so much about those early days, refereeing on parks on a Sunday morning – anyone who has ever been involved in that level of football understands it’s not an easy job to do. It’s not the nicest of environments; you’ve got players who’ve been out the night before, and sometimes they’d go a little bit over the top. You have to pick up the right skillsets at a certain age to be able to manage your way through those games. It helps you in life, and it’s something which made me the referee I went on to be.

You’ve got to know how to handle the abuse. Look, don’t get me wrong, you’ve got to find that balance, and when to act. It’s a bit like being a policeman, in a way. A policeman isn’t going to arrest every person who abuses him, he’s just got to find the right moment and how to handle each situation.

You’ve got to gain respect, and as a young person refereeing, that’s a tough task. Once you crack it and you’ve found that level, life becomes easier, and you get that confidence. I’ll always remember looking at team sheets before a game. I’d never look at the names, I’d look at the dates of birth, because more often than not I’d be one of the youngest on the pitch!

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Alex Apati

Alex has been with the Ladbrokes PR team since 2017 having previously worked for the news department. From sparring with Peter Fury to talking interviews on the Duke and Duchess' baby names, he's covered a range of sports and novelty events.

A frustrated West Brom fan who is no stranger to an oche, Alex is originally from Dudley, although he's worked hard to rid himself of the Black Country twang.