I am honoured to join the YATR team at the same time as the world’s best, Mark Clattenburg, and I want to explain how his story shows how much being determined to learn can pay off!
I distinctly remember when he started out, because I thought to myself, as a player, that I could not get much out of him and that his style was not going to work for him in the long run.
It’s not that he was arrogant, I would describe it better as detached, and that tends to get players’ backs up. Add that to a touch of nerves which players can always detect, and sometimes exploit, by upping the aggression in an attempt to intimidate decisions out of the ref, and no way did I foresee the kind of glorious career that panned out for him.
Of course, nerves are common and entirely understandable at such a high level as the Premier League, what with the money and the pressure, but if you don’t deal with the issue, it spreads and causes tension in all sorts of on-field situations where you could do without it!
Clatts simply realised where his weaknesses lay and he changed. For me, when you see him in action now, he gives you what I call honesty value, which works both ways and means a lot. He could run by you and say, sorry, I’ll get the next one right, or you might even say the same to him.
It will probably surprise you to hear, but being right or wrong is not the biggest factor in a referee’s popularity from a player’s perspective. Engagement is far more important, not that some notable exceptions have not risen to the top of the refereeing tree.
Steve Bennett was one such referee I just could not get on with, and it was not because he was so tall or because he once sent me off… I had that coming! I just felt, whatever the situation, there was never any ‘give’ there with Steve. He was too aloof.
Proudly standing on the other end of that particular spectrum was YATR’s Mark Halsey, even if he could occasionally drive you mad. I’m not just saying this, but he really was my favourite referee, by a mile.
With his natural man-management skills, which took into account the working class background most of us shared, came a mutual respect you don’t see enjoyed by too many of today’s best men in the middle.
Don’t get me wrong, players really do not get half as involved in ranking refs as fans and the media tend to do. Most of the time, it would be a case of finding out their identity in the dressing room ten minutes before kick-off and either giving it a collective, “Nooooo!!!” or a “Phew, at least he’s alright…”
As long as you felt that an official was giving his best, however, you could forgive a surprising amount of errors that might have really cost you. It’s such a pity these days that they seem less likely to try and engage than even five or six years ago.
Believe me, just an icebreaker here or there can go a long way in minimising the ‘them and us’ challenge all referees face. I was captain of Fulham when the Respect campaign was launched, and I genuinely felt it improved relations for at least a season, before being allowed to fade away again.
Pre-match chats which could extend to five minutes of constructive banter have been allowed to wither away to a perfunctory delivery of team sheets, and the game is all the poorer for it.
So if Mark Clattenburg’s rise to the very top can teach us anything, it’s the value of education, even if that might mean teaching yourself. He turned himself into one of the Select Group’s top communicators as well as one of my own favourites and never looked back, having left me far from optimistic given my very first impressions.