Did Clattenburg really make one of the worst refereeing decisions ever?

There has been fervent debate in the wake of Mark Clattenburg’s decision to allow Nani’s goal at Old Trafford on Saturday evening to stand even though Heurelho Gomes had rolled the ball out convinced he had been awarded a free kick. I have been absorbed by the arguments with some in support of the ruling and others lambasting the referee’s actions.

One thing I am certain of is that this article will divide opinion. It is a highly emotive topic that has raised pulses, particularly for those connected with Spurs and particularly for the man at the helm at White Hart Lane.

Harry Redknapp has not been shy of expressing his thoughts on the matter, brandishing the decision one of the worst ever. He has been so passionately outspoken that the threat of disciplinary action was a distinct possibility, a threat Harry promised to meet with a self-imposed media blackout had the FA decided to pursue an improper conduct charge.

Redknapp has escaped punishment, but nevertheless I struggle to concur with his forthright views on the topic. First of all, tackling his ‘one of the worst decisions ever’ quote head on, it would seem Harry has allowed his grievance to evolve into exaggeration.

Tottenham fans need not look too far for a case in point. Many followers of the Lilywhites would be right to consider Clattenburg’s failure to award a goal when Pedro Mendes’ effort bounced a full two yards over the line at Old Trafford in 2005 to be one of the worst ever.

Every other English man need only roll the clock back as far as 27th June, to the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, for a similar tale of heartache. We all watched on in horror as Jorge Larrionder and his assistant refused to entertain the fact that Frank Lampard’s shot had crossed the line.

Watford and Reading fans would be certain to mention Stuart Attwell’s name if they were asked to name the worst refereeing decision of all time. The young man in black was a little too keen to see the scoreboard tick over when the Hornets faced the Royals in 2008 and awarded the now infamous ghost goal which had not even passed between the posts.

These are all matters of fact. They are indisputable errors of judgement where the officials have failed to apply the rather fundamental rule that if the ball crosses the line it is a goal. And if it doesn’t, it isn’t. The mere fact that there is debate over Clattenburg’s decision this weekend immediately eliminates it from a comparison with the game’s great refereeing gaffes.

Catastrophic Blunder

However, my fundamental disagreement with Tottenham’s furious boss is that I actually don’t believe the decision is a refereeing howler at all. In fact, I see it as a catastrophic goalkeeping blunder.

I would be prepared to concede that the officials played a role in generating confusion. The ref did not make it clear to Gomes that he had not awarded a free kick for Nani’s obvious handball and he also left himself open to criticism for ushering Spurs players away whilst he consulted with his linesman only to allow Rio Ferdinand to get up close and personal.

However, neither of these instances constitutes a failure to adhere to the rules of the game and whilst one could argue these actions are not examples of best refereeing practice, neither can be used to criticize Mark Clattenburg for concluding the goal should stand.

The man with the whistle is perfectly entitled not to blow for a foul or a handball if he feels his actions are in the best interests of allowing the game to flow. With the ball safely in Gomes’ hands there was no need to award a free kick for what was evidently a blatant handball by Nani.

The term playing advantage has been used to classify the referee’s decision not to give the free kick and I have heard a counter argument that there cannot be an advantage to be played when the ball is in the defensive 18 yard box.

The merit of this argument is significantly undermined when you put a slightly different slant on the situation; what possible disadvantage could there be from a goalkeeper having two gigantic mitts on the ball? In theory, the ball was in the safest place it could possibly be whilst still in open play.

The unfortunate truth for those who perceive Mark Clattenburg to be at fault on Saturday is that regardless of whether the referee should have awarded a free kick, Heurelho Gomes does not have the power or authority to do it on his behalf and ultimately he should not have taken it upon himself to try and do so. He is hugely culpable for creating the carnage and should accept responsibility for gifting the opposition a goal through a dreadful error of judgement.

Harry Redknapp still feels utterly aggrieved by the incident and nothing, certainly not this article, will convince him that his team has not been severely hard done by. But even the experts who have expressed agreement and sympathy with Tottenham’s cause have invariably used the old adage that players must always play to the ref’s whistle.

Gomes’ failure to abide by this ancient and fundamental footballing decree has resulted in people comparing Mark Clattenburg’s decision with the past misdemeanours of Attwell, Larrionder and… Clattenburg. Instead, we should be considering where Gomes’ antics will place him alongside the anguished souls of Enckelman and Taibi in the goalkeeping hall of shame.

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