During the 2015-16 season, many incredible feats were achieved. Leicester City won the Premier League against all odds, Jamie Vardy scored in a record eleven consecutive matches, and Bournemouth, a team with stadium with a smaller capacity than some League Two sides, avoided relegation from the top flight by five points.
In terms of refereeing, Mark Clattenburg also had a stellar campaign. He was named the World Referee of the Year for 2016, having taken charge of the FA Cup Final at Wembley in May, then the UEFA Champions League Final in Milan later that month. Finally, he oversaw Portugal’s triumph in Paris at Euro 2016, capping off an unbelievable year and an unprecedented treble.
Whilst some resent the celebrity status afforded to high-profile match officials like Clattenburg, there is no doubt that he is one of the very best referees England has ever produced. It is hardly his fault that so much scrutiny surrounds every decision in this age of social media and television match reviews that last longer than the games themselves.
Mark Clattenburg was the Lionel Messi of refereeing; rarely making errors and consistently performing at the highest standard. Now, though, he has decided to move to Saudi Arabia, giving up his Premier League life to start a new career away from the spotlight, on a wage roughly ten times more than he was on in the UK.. Money was, of course, a factor, but a career away from the limelight and pressure must have also been an attractive proposition.
Publicly, the Premier League and the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Board, the group responsible for the top-level referees in England) claim that the opportunity was ‘too good to turn down’ for Clattenburg, rather than their best official deciding to quit at the peak of his powers due to feeling the heat too severely.
But the reality is that he became tired of the intense scrutiny placed upon him every week. Feeling that he did not get the right support from the FA, and with an offer of more money for doing a less stressful job abroad on the table, Clattenburg made the shock move with immediate effect.
It must have been a surprise to the relevant authorities in this country, and leaves the Premier League missing it’s best referee at a time when the standards of officiating are being questioned more than ever before.
That Clattenburg chose to move to Saudi Arabia – he was reportedly also interested in moves to China and America – rather than stay in the most watched league in the world at the peak of his career must be a worry. Other referees could follow suit.
There are fewer referees getting involved at lower levels of the game now than ever before, with the intake at critical levels. Most local football associations struggle to fulfil junior fixtures at grassroots level every weekend because of a lack of referees.
Now the most high-profile referee in the world, regarded as one of the best ever, has just decided to leave the best league in the world with immediate effect, despite still being in his peak. It does not reflect well.
There are other referees in England capable of producing top level performances, but none in the same class as Clattenburg. When it came to the biggest games, he was the man, and rarely did he fail to produce.
Now the burden will fall chiefly on Martin Atkinson and Michael Oliver, both good at their jobs, but both more of a Robert Lewandowski than a Lionel Messi – very good, but not the very, very best.
With Clattenburg gone, it gives a window of opportunity for those other officials to make a step up. The FA, the PGMOL and the Premier League better hope that they take it, or the refereeing crisis could deepen ever further over the next few seasons.