“Innovator” and “footballer” are two words rarely associated with the name of Clive Thomas, writes Alex Griffiths. Yet this iconic referee, destined ever to be remembered for ruling out a Zico World Cup goal, remains in touch with the game he cherishes and brings the added perspective of both having played and having fought at the sharp end for law changes we now take for granted.
Of course he is also still the very same age, give or take three months, as Sepp Blatter, who was merely another eager apparatchik encountered by Thomas during Germany ’74. And at the age of 79, just maybe the Welshman has become more circumspect in choosing his battles. Whether or not that is so, however, it did not take long to find a battle he was ready, willing and able to choose. It’s only fair to quote Graham Poll exactly, from ‘Geoff Hurst, the Hand of God and The Biggest Rows in World Football’ – his 2009 follow-up to Seeing Red: “Perhaps Thomas’ decision to end play as Zico was about to score was a horrendous error of judgement. Or perhaps it was to make a point. Perhaps he was exasperated…Perhaps he was punishing them. It is even possible he blew when he did as a theatrical demonstration of his own importance.” With scant acknowledgement of how many years ahead of his time Thomas was in battles fought with the powers that be, Poll went further and accused him of not admitting to mistakes when he did indeed admit to many, in his own autobiography, ‘By The Book’. On the subject of Poll then, Thomas is as forthright as ever: “I’ve got no time at all for him. He made huge blunders [at World Cups], but that was not the worst thing for me. No, Poll went right down in my estimation for what he said concerning a match between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury. “There was one particular occasion, I believe it is a very well-known game [February 1st, 2005] thanks to YouTube, and he admitted he was just not able to control the problems in the tunnel. Not only that, and he might realise this himself in retirement, but he went on to say that Wayne Rooney had sworn at him something like 20 times in the first half. Well, that tells me Rooney had no respect for him. It sounds simple I know, but players need and want to know what they can and cannot do, and cheating might well now be worse among players than it has ever been. There was an English referee who came to live in Swansea, a nice enough chap and we met up one night after he moved to Wales. He asked me why I managed to get so many top games when I didn’t get on with the players! I asked him what exactly he meant by that and he said that it surprised him, that’s all, that I wasn’t more of a player’s referee. He said that he never went straight home after a game but instead would go out drinking with the players and as a result he felt they were more likely to do as he told them to, the next time they found themselves on the same pitch. I tried to warn him not to trust the players… for we are the opposite to them, and that, because we are there to ensure the laws are applied, you can’t ever be true friends with players, but he carried on and he was struck off the list shortly afterwards.” Seen by Graham Kelly as a thorn in the Football Association’s side, Thomas pointed the finger at the FA’s alleged failures when it came to the modernisation of its laws, in its maintenance of fan discipline, in its resistance to FIFA, as well as something else that at least it could not be accused of since 1992: a lack of resistance to the good, old Football League. Now those were the days!
At the very real risk of poking impertinently at an old wound, I’d been prompted in advance to ask Thomas about Argentina ’78, and whether the word ‘regret’ ever came into the equation. While it may have defined his career for many, did that necessarily mean he would ever ‘go there’? Having watched the incident on live TV as a goggle-eyed boy of 11, I was happy to gamble on the memory banks if necessary… and just in case yours need topping up, take a look here. Keeping my powder dry, it turns out, could well have nudged Thomas to offload what had been on his mind a long, long time. Others might call it an exclusive, but as the first-hand account of Mar Del Plata and the 1-1 draw between Sweden and Brazil emerged from my landline, I took care to write down every last syllable. “I was later lambasted by colleagues and that never concerned me. I was told by [referee chief] Jose Maria Codesal I was wrong back in the dressing room, but you know, even as Brazilians shouted ‘Gol’ in front of me, the decision had actually been accepted by the players. There was no argument, in fact both linesmen told me, ‘well done’. After I had dressed, two English journalists, Powell of The Mail and Jones of The Mirror, told me outside that there was talk of sending me straight home, which never did happen. On the plane I was also made aware that the president of FIFA being a Brazilian might become a factor but I still said I would take them on, purely on what Law 7 [covering Allowance for Time Lost] states, and I would have. Having flown back to Buenos Aires, at the reception in the Carlton Hotel, in my broken Spanish, I asked for my key and no phone calls as I headed up to my room.” What followed constituted new information certainly not in the book of 30 years ago, which cast the besieged official’s claim of ‘sleeping the sleep of the just’ in a vastly different light: “In the middle of the night, the phone did ring and the desk was saying this man says he must speak to you. I agreed to take the call and it was the late Cliff Morgan, of the BBC. ‘We are taking you out,’ he said. ‘I want you out of that bed in 15 minutes and you are coming out with us.’ “That’s how Cliff and the commentator David Coleman came to take me out clubbing, and true friends that they were, neither of them so much as once asked anything about the game. It made me realise who my friends were, to be honest with you, and they proved to be close friends indeed. “Now I look back and yes, I would have preferred it to have gone differently, but as I told [FIFA’s] Friedrich Seipelt, who woke me by phone the next day: waiting until any longer after the corner to terminate the game would not have been honest. My old mate, Jack Taylor was right in what he told the BBC… that it was not the diplomatic thing to do. Even so, the BBC proved I was right when it came to adding up the time. And, even today, two men approached me out walking and spoke of their respect at my decision. Not a week goes by without it being raised.”
So however unrepentant this Norwich City signing-turned ground staffer turned-globally infamous man in the middle remains, it cannot ever be said Thomas put his career before his hopeless devotion to the game itself. “People are fantastic to me you know, they always want to talk and whether or not they agree with a decision or not, once I have explained my viewpoint to them, never once have I had any abuse in return from a member of the public. I’m not by any means suggesting people have always agreed with a decision, but they have always been satisfied that what I have given has been an honest decision. That’s why I said I slept the sleep of the just after my last game in Argentina and that’s why I will always be able to sleep. What I got from my career was the respect from supporters, managers and others who matter for my motives and my love for the game. Now, no matter how many matches you watch on the television you will never see the referee blow his whistle for full-time while the ball is in the area. So, do I understand why people disagree with me? Yes, but I also know the very same people also say, ‘we respect you, because you’re honest’. And you can’t beat that, can you?”