‘The day Chelsea accused me of racially abusing Mikel Obi almost ruined my life’ – Former Premier League referee, Mark Clattenburg writes in his autobiography
Former Premier League referee, Mark Clattenburg has opened up on the 2012 racism row which involved him and ex- Chelsea superstar, John Mikel Obi.
In October 2012, Clattenburg was accused by Chelsea of racially abusing John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata following a 3-2 defeat by Manchester United at the Stamford Bridge.
Mikel’s former team-mate Ramires claimed he heard Clattenburg say ‘shut up you monkey’ to Mikel in Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat by Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League.
Clattenburg had sent off two Chelsea players, Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres, and the officials missed an offside for United’s winning goal.
In an exclusive extract from Mark Clattenburg’s autobiography Whistle Blower, the former Premier League spoke about how the racism row almost ruined his life and how former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson stepped in to offer his support.
Read the extract from Clattenburg’s autobiography Whistle Blower, as he tells his side of the story.
I knew to expect a tirade of abuse from Chelsea supporters, but I was not beating myself up over my performance. It was then that I heard a commotion outside the dressing-room door.
What the hell’s going on out there? Before I get to the door it swings open, and with some force. I jump back, instinctively. What the f***? John Obi Mikel bursts in. I can see the rage in his eyes. Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo and coach Eddie Newton are holding him back. Mikel is out of control, he’s trying to get at me. ‘I’m gonna break your legs!’ he shouts. F****** hell, he’s swinging for me. There are arms everywhere. I’m ducking to avoid them. A security guy is grappling with Mikel, pulling him away. That’s not easy, Mikel is strong. I’ve got my boots on, I’m slipping all over the place. I’m knocked backwards into some seats. I just try to defend myself. He’s still hellbent on hurting me. Get him out of here! Mikel is eventually dragged back into the corridor. What the f*** has just happened?
Di Matteo eventually returned to my dressing-room. Like me, he was shaking. I got the impression Chelsea were concerned about what I was going to include in my report.
I have to be clear here – and this is extremely important – at this point there had been no mention of racism to me, either from Mikel or Di Matteo. No one had made any accusation of that nature.
Was I going to report Mikel for what he had done in the dressing-room? Absolutely. There was no disputing what he did. Mikel would be facing a lengthy ban.
I left Stamford Bridge in the people-carrier and, as we made our way out of West London towards Heathrow, I had just one thought in my head. ‘Get me out of here.’
My phone is buzzing in my pocket. I shouldn’t get it out, I’m going through airport security. I take a quick look, there’s a social-media notification on the screen . . . ‘BREAKING NEWS: CHELSEA ACCUSE REFEREE MARK CLATTENBURG OF RACIST COMMENTS’. What the f***? Is this a joke? A fake account? Mike Riley, my PGMOL boss, calls immediately. I answer. It has been leaked to the media that Chelsea are saying I racially abused Mikel and Juan Mata. My conversation with Riley is short and we don’t have any details beyond what is being reported. It seems the press have more information than we do.
During those early hours overnight on the Sunday of the game, I realised the power of football clubs, the hold they have over the media and their influence on public opinion, driven by the blind loyalty of their fanbase. It was terrifying. It was the European champions against a referee – who would you believe?
I am trapped. A prisoner in my own home. A prisoner in my own head. I am not allowed to speak. Not allowed to tell the world I am innocent. I can’t sleep. No chance. I’m upstairs, downstairs, cups of tea at 3 a.m. I’m reading the newspapers online. I’m watching the TV news. I’m checking social media. It’s not healthy but I need to know what is being said, I need to try to make sense of this. The bolt is on the door but my head is being invaded by the outside world. If I dare to look out from the window the photographers and journalists are there, waiting. Then they hide, like snipers, all around, all wanting the first picture. There have been lots of tears. This could ruin my career. It could ruin my life. The fear is worse than going to prison. I am being called a racist. That is a real life-sentence, you don’t come back from that. Guilty until proven innocent, that is the English way.
Within twenty-four hours of the game, my team of officials at Stamford Bridge told the PGMOL they had heard no racial language down the headsets. The sound quality is crystal clear, it was inconceivable that my two assistant referees and fourth official would not have picked up on something of that nature being said.
Chelsea were leaking information to the press every day, trying to control the narrative. They let it be known that the Mata allegation involved me calling him a ‘Spanish twat’, which simply was not true.
Two days after the game, Chelsea midfielder Oriol Romeu revealed that Mata had, in fact, not heard those words. The club withdrew the allegation.
It was also reported that Mikel himself had not heard any racial language, although I still did not know what it was they were alleging. Chelsea were now briefing the press that Brazilian players Ramires and David Luiz would back up the club’s claims.
Surely this undermines the entire thing? How can we trust anything coming out of Chelsea? They’re making it up as they go along. This is all b******s This has to be over, right?
Wrong. Chelsea made a formal complaint to the FA three days after the game. They were saying I had racially abused Mikel and, for the first time, I was made aware of the specifics of their accusation, which was also leaked to the press.
According to Chelsea, I had said to Mikel, ‘Shut up, you monkey.’ The language disgusted me, it was damaging and fictitious.
I’m crying. I feel sick. Why? Where has that come from? My friends and family have never seen me like this, I’m beaten. Chelsea are out to get me and they’re going for it, and it seems like people believe them.
Chelsea also confirmed that Ramires was the only player who had heard the word ‘monkey’, and not Mikel. To add further incredulity to their case, it was now said that Luiz’s part in the matter was to translate for Ramires what his team-mate thought he had heard me say.
Once I had considered all of the new information, in a strange way it reassured me, because I knew I had not said what they were alleging. I also knew Ramires spoke hardly any English. It strengthened my belief that this was a smear campaign, manufactured for reasons known only to Chelsea.
Back at home, locked away and struggling to sleep, obsessively going over the events of Sunday, I began to slip into a dark place. It was then that I found an unlikely friend.
‘Mark, it’s Sir Alex Ferguson,’ came the unmistakable Glaswegian accent down the phone.
I was such a wreck, I did not even say much back to him. ‘I have spoken to my players and they did not hear you say what Chelsea are alleging. We don’t believe you said it. I believe in fairness, so we will support you.’
Sir Alex did not have to make that call and he did not have to defend me in public, which he later did. But he did so because he believed what Chelsea were doing was wrong. He put his neck on the block, not for me, but in the name of truth and justice.
I was later told Chelsea threatened to sue him for insinuating they were lying. But Sir Alex stuck to his guns, he thought it was nonsense.
I was called to the first FA hearing in Manchester and spoke to my lawyer.
‘I’m adamant, I want to know the moment Chelsea say that this happened, then we can disprove it from the footage,’ I said to him.
The FA panel said they could not tell us because they did not know. My lawyer made the point that there must be more footage available and requested that the FA ask Chelsea to provide it. I was told Chelsea were awkward at first and it took a few days – and an FA reminder – before they handed over the feed from an overhead static camera.
I was called to a second interview. For the first time, three weeks after the game, Chelsea revealed the exact moment of their allegation. I believe Chelsea thought they were being clever, because there was a break in the TV footage as a replay was shown of a Robin van Persie shot. When the live pictures returned, I was on the screen with Mikel in the background. My lawyer said it looked like Chelsea were trying to make their allegation fit.
But now, because of the footage from the static camera, it proved beyond any doubt that I was nowhere near close enough to Ramires when he claimed to have heard me use those words. There were two more players in closer proximity to me than Ramires – Chelsea defender Ashley Cole and United striker Wayne Rooney – and both of them told the panel they had heard no racial language, and neither had Mikel.
Twenty-five days after the game, the FA dismissed the case. I was not guilty, something I had known all along.
Mikel was later given a three-match ban over the incident in the referee’s room and the FA explained to me they had to be careful not to be too harsh, because they did not want to deter other players from coming forward to report allegations of racism.
I make no apology for how I felt in that moment.
Three matches? Are the FA taking the p***? He should be banned for the rest of the season, if not more. Was this the real reason for Chelsea’s accusations against me? Was it all an attempt to mitigate against what Mikel had done? If so, Chelsea have won, Mikel has dodged the ban he deserved and I’m still the biggest loser in this. Hell, I have missed more matches than Mikel will. I’m furious.
The club had made my existence unbearable. They fed the media and left me exposed to the hate and suspicion. They did not care about the effect on my wife and baby daughter or my son at school, they only cared about themselves.
Chelsea and Mikel never did apologise. Am I surprised? Not at all, it fits entirely with their original disregard for me.
Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, did bring Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck to a meeting with all of the referees a few weeks after the verdict. The group were threatening to go on strike.
Buck showed up at St George’s Park and went around the room shaking everyone’s hand. He gestured to shake mine. Don’t you f****** dare. He moved on.
He did not make a good start when he said he did not understand what our issues were. We all looked at each other in disbelief – was this clown taking the p***? We left the meeting angrier than we had entered it.
As for Mikel, I have no time for him whatsoever. I cannot forgive someone who has refused to apologise to me.
On the day after the verdict, the back page of the Daily Mail read, ‘Chelsea almost ruined Mark Clattenburg’s life – and they don’t even have the decency to say sorry.’ The article also speculated that I would pursue legal action against the club. They were right, I fully intended to. I was then told by Mike Riley that, to do so, I would first have to end my employment as a Premier League referee, if I wanted to sue a Premier League club. It quickly became apparent there would be opposition to me engaging lawyers against Chelsea. That frustrates me when I look back now.
I still believe Chelsea’s motive could have been a retaliation to John Terry’s suspension. The FA had found Terry guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand on the ‘balance of probability’. Chelsea believed, like the criminal investigation, it should have to be proven to the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. Terry was found not guilty in a court of law. That is why, I believe, they may have pursued the allegation against me, to test the FA’s ‘balance of probability’ standard.
But I moved on in my career, I had to. So when I walked out to referee the finals of the Champions League and European Championship in 2016, it felt like a ‘f*** you’ to all of those who tried to destroy me. They had failed.
If I can take one positive, it is that the experience made me stronger.