Pepe, Mark Clattenburg, Champions League, football
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Mark Clattenburg on his shock at getting the Champions League final and dealing with ‘absolute nightmare’ Pepe

| 28.05.2022

Former referee Mark Clattenburg has been looking back on his career during an exclusive interview with Ladbrokes this week.

In part five, he recalls being told he was in charge of the 2016 Champions League final and his memories of the showpiece occasion in Milan.

Getting the call from Pierluigi Collina – I was just in sheer disbelief

I always used to set myself goals at the start of a season, and my aim in the 2015-16 season was to referee in the Champions League semi-final. I’d done it in the previous year in the second leg between Bayern and Barcelona, so of course I wanted to match that again in the following season.

I got my wish and ended up refereeing the first leg between Atletico Madrid and Bayern. And when you end up reffing a semi-final, you know that’s your job done for the tournament; you’re finished. You know you’re not going to be involved in the final.

I remember saying to my colleagues before the game “look, guys, this is our last game before the Euros, let’s just enjoy the game and finish the season on a high and go to the Euros on a positive”. The game wasn’t a difficult one to manage; Bayern had lost 1-0, so they were happy enough to still be in the tie, and Atletico – at home – were delighted to get the win. Everybody was happy in the stadium.

Pierluigi Collina, who was my boss at the time, sent me a message after the game congratulating me on my performance. I didn’t think it was my best game but nobody was complaining. The second leg went ahead and Atletico got the job done, which set up a final against Real Madrid.

All of the Spanish media were talking about Jonas Eriksson getting the final, because he hadn’t reffed either of the semis. Normally when you do a semi-final, that’s it for the tournament, and when you’re a referee at the top of the game like Jonas was, and you’re not doing the semi, you’d probably be right to assume you’re going to get the final.

Skip forward a few days and I’m driving to St George’s Park for a referees’ get-together. I’m on the M1, and my phone goes and I can see it’s Pierluigi Collina. When that man rings, you know he’s going to give you a roasting, so straight away I’m thinking about what I’ve done wrong!

Pierluigi Collina, Mark Clattenburg, football

I pull over and he asks how everything was, congratulating me for getting the FA Cup final. He told me it was long overdue, and then asked how I’d like to go to Milan. I said it would be fantastic. To be fourth official to Jonas Eriksson in the Champions League final? What an opportunity. Jonas was, and still is, a big, big friend of mine from Sweden – I’ve got a lot of respect for him.

“No, no, no. You’re going to be the referee.”

I just froze. “Stop joking with us. No I’m not”, I said.

“What? You don’t want it? I can find someone else…”

I don’t think he understood what I was saying; he thought I was turning it down but I was just in sheer disbelief.

I went numb for a little while. All of a sudden it hit me. Before I put the phone down he told me the media would find out at 4pm and that I had to keep it to myself until then. Then he said we had a problem.

“One of your colleagues, Andre Marriner, is booked to go on holiday.”

I told Pierluigi to give me a couple of hours, and said I’d pull Andre for a chat at St George’s Park to let him know the news. He was obviously convinced our work for the season was done, so he’d booked to go away with his family.

I got to St George’s Park and privately pulled my colleagues one by one to let them know the news. Obviously everybody was buzzing, but we couldn’t tell any of the other refs. Then I got to Andre Marriner…

“Sorry, my friend, unfortunately you can’t be involved in the Champions League final; you’re on holiday.”

I don’t even think I finished the sentence before he told me he was cancelling his holiday! So he cancelled his family break for what was the chance of a lifetime!

My wife was more worried about what she was going to wear than the match itself!

Of course, then we all have to carry on with training, with the other referees, and none of us can say anything. It’s hard keeping a secret like that, and Mike Reilly came over to me at the end of the session – he didn’t know the news – and told me he’d never seen me train as well. It was the adrenaline kicking in.

We finished training and I went upstairs to lay on my bed and relax until 4 o’clock came around. I turn on Sky Sports and it was announced that I was going to ref the final. All of a sudden my phone was going crazy. I went downstairs to grab some dinner, and listen, it doesn’t matter behind the scenes whether you do or don’t like some of your colleagues, when I walked into the room each and every one of them stood up and clapped for me.

That was nice, you know? It was nice to feel that respect from my teammates. I’d done it the year before for Martin Atkinson when he got the Europa League final, so it was nice to get the same in return.

Those days were the exciting bits, but time moves on and all of a sudden it starts to sink in: I’m refereeing the Champions League final. You start getting a bit more nervous in your preparations.

I’ve got to mention, I rang my wife straight after Pierluigi called me. I asked her how she fancied going to Milan. Confused, she asked me what I was going on about. I told her I was going to be refereeing the Champions League final and she started panicking.

“Why are you panicking? I’m the one that’s got to ref the game!”

She was worried about what she was going to wear; what handbag she was going to take. I was like ‘oh my God’. She was more worried about what she was going to wear than the match itself!

The closer the final got, the more nervous I felt. I’d reffed the FA Cup final the week before and I wasn’t happy with my performance; I was kicking myself. But the Monday of the week leading up to the final had swung around and from that moment I knew I had to just switch on and prepare for the biggest game in Europe.

Preparations were quite relaxed, actually. We all met up on the Thursday in London and flew to Milan on the Friday. We went to the stadium, did all the usual things and had dinner the night before. After breakfast on the day of the final, I just stayed in my room all day, trying my best to relax, listening to music.

In the pre-match build-up, the nerves ramp up a gear. I spent the majority of my warm-up just sitting on the floor, taking in the atmosphere, trying to relax.

Pepe was an absolute nightmare all the way through the Champions League final

The hardest part about it was in the tunnel, just before kick-off. I had Koke in one ear and Sergio Ramos in the other, they were itching to get out. I think Alicia Keys was singing, and both players were telling me to go and get her off! How am I going to go up to Alicia Keys and ask her to stop so we can start the game?! We were getting a little delayed in the tunnel so everyone was on edge a little bit.

Once we got the nod to step out onto the pitch, my legs completely turned to jelly. As I’m walking towards the plinth to collect the ball I’m just thinking one thing: don’t drop it. I’m just thinking ‘sh*t, if I drop this ball in front of the millions of people watching, I’m going to be a laughing stock’. All I could concentrate on was grabbing that ball, putting it under my arm and not dropping it.

Pepe, Mark Clattenburg, Champions League, football

I can’t say I remember too much about the game itself; I know I was accused of being a lizard because of something I did with my tongue. Pepe was being an idiot during the match and I had to go and stop an incident from escalating – something I ended up dealing with really well.

I did this thing with my tongue, some people thought I was a lizard, some people thought I was calling him something, but in truth it was just that my mouth was so dry! I know a lot of people thought I was having a go at Pepe, who was an absolute nightmare all the way through that final, but I wasn’t; I just had a dry mouth!

In the end the match went to penalties, and when you’re in that position as a referee, you don’t lose. There’s always a hero and there’s always a villain, and you just knew – you could just feel it – that it was going to be one man and one man only who was going to be the hero: Cristiano Ronaldo.

You just knew he was going to step up and score. Once he put his penalty away and won the game for Real Madrid, all I was thinking about was the match ball. I went straight over to it, grabbed hold of it and that was it; off I went!

One standout memory on a personal level for me was going up to get my medal. The week before, in the FA Cup final, I was booed by everybody in Wembley. You can imagine how hard something like that is to have to deal with. But this time, I was applauded. It made me feel like a completely different person.

In life, when you’ve worked so hard for something, you’ve given it your all and you’ve tried your best, and sometimes it’s not enough; it doesn’t work out. But this one was different; in the biggest match of my career, in the Madrid derby, it was sensational.

You know, when you think back to where you’ve come from… growing up my parents didn’t have much money, we worked hard for everything we had. To be given a chance to referee some of the biggest matches in the world is something I’ll forever be proud of.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I was basically awake for a couple of days; I stayed in Milan the next day to soak up the atmosphere, and that experience will live with me forever. Do I remember what my wife ended up wearing? I don’t remember anything!

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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.