Clive Thomas and “the most controversial decision that any referee has ever made”

Back in 1981, Tottenham and Wolverhampton Wanderers played an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. It was a game that I happened to be present at – my wife’s family all being dedicated Wolves fans. Late on in the game, Spurs looked to be on the way to Wembley, having been given the lead for a second time with a goal from Glenn Hoddle. Wolves had huffed and puffed, but this time, the house did not look like it was going to be blown down. Then, with time ticking away, Kenny Hibbitt ran into the Spurs penalty to be challenged by Hoddle. The midfielder fell to the floor and the referee, to the astonishment of Spurs players and fans, and the surprised delight of those clad in old gold and black, pointed to the spot. You know that phrase? “Never in a million years…” Yeah, it was one of them. Willie Carr stepped up to score and the game went to a reply, which Spurs won 3-0.

Reports later suggested that Wolves manager, John Barnwell, seeing his team’s chance of a Wembley final drifting away with the passing seconds had instructed his players to drive into the box with the ball, whenever the opportunity presented itself, confiding something along the lines that you never know when ‘Clive’s in one of these moods’.

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The ‘Clive’ he was referring to was a certain Clive Thomas, the referee who most fans knew had a certain penchant for the controversial and a particularly individualistic interpretation of the role of a referee. Whether there was any kind of ‘mood’ swilling around the consciousness of Mr. Thomas on that afternoon will probably never be conclusively known. Barnwell, however, be it by chance or an astute understanding of the man in black, had gained a temporary salvation for his team.

Writing in The Times later, Clive White asserted that, “the best referees make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.” It’s an oft used phrase when judging the most capable of officials in the highly pressurised job of refereeing football matches. White’s assertion, however, was not a prelude to praise for such an official. Instead, it was a lead into a criticism of a referee who had become synonymous with controversial decisions and who, in this specific instance had awarded what White considered, “a ludicrous penalty”.

The majority of the people in the ground, and those watching on television, would hardly have cause to demur. Picking up his theme from the sentence above, offering a less than fully guarded critique of Clive Thomas, White would continue, “I am not sure that Mr. Thomas shares that belief, because the star performer before an audience of 50,000 and millions more peering through the keyhole of television was unquestionably Mr Thomas. It was the Clive Thomas Spectacular Show.”

Such eloquent descriptions of the Treorchy-born Welsh whistler, though were nothing new. By that time, the estimable Mr. Thomas had already earned himself a reputation that any number of his brethren in officialdom would probably shake their heads at in sad resignation.

The wrath of all Everton fans was gained during another semi-final back in 1977. In a highly charged match-up between Liverpool and their neighbours from across Stanley Park, with just a few minutes of extra-time remaining, Everton’s Bryan Hamilton deflected the ball into Liverpool’s net from his hip for an apparent priceless equaliser.

The point of contact was clear to the millions of television viewers and to a large proportion of fans behind the goal and indeed the players on the pitch. Thomas, however, ruled the goal out for handball. How could he have seen something that clearly hadn’t happened? Had he been mistaken? Apparently not. Later the referee would state that “In no way could I have seen the ball make contact with his hand or his arm.” He had chalked off the goal because he wasn’t sure how else Hamilton could have propelled the ball into the net other than by use of his arm or hand. In other words, he had simply assumed the offence. It would have been a contentious action even if Hamilton had committed the offense. The fact that he hadn’t, elevated the crassness of the decision to new heights – or should that be drove it down to new depths.

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Despite the effects he had on teams in their pursuit of the FA Cup, however, Clive Thomas would make his most infamous mark on football when on the biggest stage in the world game. Some would argue that it was this occasion, rather than the game at Hillsborough that White was reporting on, that saw the true leap into stardom of everyone’s most controversial referee, and the launching of “the Clive Thomas Spectacular Show.”

The World Cup staged in Argentina in 1978 was memorable in so many ways. Then 41 years old, Clive Thomas had been elevated to that elite band of officials chosen to be the arbiters of fair play and guardians of the rules of the game during football’s biggest tournaments. Whatever reactions his decision-making would provoke both before and still to come in the future, this tournament would see him produce his ‘signature’ moment of officious officialdom and acquire an infamy all of his very own.

Perhaps wise after the event, it would have been pertinent of FIFA to enquire of Thomas to why he refused to sign the protocol requested by the governing body that officials should not speak to the press. Not only did Thomas decline to sign it, he went public with his refusal. A month ahead of the tournament, and quoted in the Daily Mirror, he apparently declared. “You know me. If I’ve got something to say I say it.” One short month later, he would have, and he did.

Thomas had already officiated at the 1974 event and the European Championships in 1976. He was therefore regarded as an official of some repute, and ahead of his opening fixture in the tournament, between Brazil and Sweden in Group Three on 3rd June, was regarded as a key member of the refereeing group assembled. Brazil had sullied their reputation in the 1974 tournament when a snarling, streetfighter of a team forswore the honour of so many before them and embraced an overly physical approach that eventually saw them eliminated by the Dutch.

Whether it was a tactical ruse by the Swedish manager, Georg Ericson, or merely an attempt to curry favour with the appointed match official, but ahead of the game, he described Brazil as “dirty” and welcomed the appointment of Thomas to officiate the game calling the Welshman “a strong referee… generally regarded as the best one here.” It is unclear whether Thomas was aware of the Swede’s comments but, during the game, he would certainly make what could be described as a “strong” decision. Whether it was one that would justify his status among referees as “the best one here” is an entirely different question, though. Thomas himself would describe it as “probably the most controversial decision that any referee has ever made, a decision which reverberated around the world”. Clive Thomas was about to stomp onto world football’s centre stage and give scant regard to Clive White’s assertion that “the best referees make themselves as inconspicuous as possible.”

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Controversy was already the flavour of the moment at the Estadio José Maria Minella in Mar del Plata where the game would be played. The previous day, France had played Italy there with Romanian Nicolae Rainea in charge of the whistle. France had scored first with Bernard Lacombe netting what was, at the time, the fastest goal in World Cup Finals history, but with the game drifting towards full-time, Italy had struck back to lead 2-1. With time almost up, Rainea awarded the French a free kick out on the right flank.

Observers of the game of late will have noticed the propensity of referees to seemingly wait for an uncontroversial moment of play before blowing for half time or to signal the end of the game. A goal-kick hit downfield, the ball rolling out of play for a throw-in or a pass back towards an unchallenged goalkeeper are comfortable ways to call it a day without incurring the wrath of either team on the cusp of launching an attack, or worse, imminently threatening to score. It hasn’t always been so. It certainly wasn’t the case in the 1978 world Cup.

Ahead of the French free kick, the Italians had constructed a two-man wall, with most of the remaining players on the field crowded into the penalty area. It was a dramatic moment. Could the French steal a late equaliser, or would the Italian defence hold firm? We will never know! Just as the free kick was about to be taken, the referee let out a long shrill whistle. He’d called full-time, denying the French their last throw of the dice. It was a controversial decision, but at least he had blown before the ball was arrowed into the crowded penalty area. The following day, Clive Thomas would raise the bar on that particular situation.

Brazil against Sweden, the following day had been pretty low key. This wasn’t the Brazil team of 1970, nor was it the hard-nosed despoilers of Joga Bonito in 1974. There was, however, the first glimpse of Zico and the beginnings of a team that would flourish four years later in Spain. But bookies who tagged this particular version of the Seleção as favourites to win the World Cup had overestimated their worth by some measure. Sweden were also hardly likely to progress and had only triumphed over Norway and Switzerland to book their passage to South America. They would finish at the bottom of the group, with a single point, gained in the most memorable second of this game.

Sweden had taken the lead just ahead of the break through Thomas Sjöberg, but Reinaldo had squared things up on the stroke of half time. The second period was flat and uninspiring with missed chances and mistakes rather than exhilarating play being the order of the day. Patrolling things, equipped with whistle and a tendency for controversy, Clive Thomas was borderline anonymous, and that would never do.

A draw seemed a tedious, but increasingly inevitable outcome as time drifted away. Brazil forced a corner out on the right. Nelinho placed the ball ready to restart the game quickly, but the linesman made him move the ball, so that it was within the confines of the quadrant as required. The midfielder who had entered the fray as a substitute some twenty-odd minutes earlier complied before striking it with the outside of his right foot to send it curling towards Zico positioned on the edge of the six-yard area. From there, things enter the realms of contention.

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Different accounts of the details dispute the precise timings, but one suggests that a mere six seconds of injury time had passed when the corner was struck in. A flick of Zico’s head saw the ball into the net and Brazilian celebrations. Such joy was rapidly constrained, however, by a Welshman shaking his head, waving his arms and pointing at his watch. No goal. Clive Thomas walked from the pitch in the manner of some kind of schoolmaster declaring that break was over when he said it was over, not a split second before, not a split second later. His purposeful stride towards the tunnel indefatigably illustrated that he would brook no argument. Full-time had been called before the ball had crossed the line. It was not a goal. Final score 1-1. “Hello, World Cup. My name’s Clive Thomas!” He didn’t add “and this is my show,” but many afterwards thought it had been declared to be thus.

When the dust, if not the dismay, had finally settled, Brazil’s manager Cláudio Coutinho expressed the frustration of his team. “The players are sad, depressed.” That feeling would be ratcheted up a few notches when the final group table revealed that the ‘goal’ had cost Brazil top place in the table, condemning them to a place in the second group stage alongside Argentina, Poland and Peru, where another controversial game, resulting in a 6-0 victory for the hosts over Peru would mean elimination for Brazil.

Back to the day, back to the decision and back to Mar del Plata, FIFA’s decision to allow Thomas to officiate regardless of his decision not to sign the protocol was about to come to the fore. Clive Thomas had something to say. Reportedly, two British journalists were waiting for him to return to the dressing room and told him of rumours that he was to be sent home. FIFA officials watching had apparently decided that the game should be about players not officials and regardless of any protests that may or not arise from the Brazilian camp, Thomas would take no further part in the tournament.

Regardless of, and perhaps doubting the veracity of, the rumours, Thomas was apparently more than happy to offer up a few quotes. “I saw the header,” he explained. “But I didn’t see the ball go into the net. I had turned away. As far as I was concerned, the game was over. The Brazilians have only themselves to blame. They should not have wasted so much time over taking the corner.” Observers of the events on the field would perhaps find the comments, shall we say ‘interesting.’ Brazilians may well have had a different word in mind.

Doubtless and convinced of the correctness of his actions, Thomas flew back to Buenos Aires and, after an evening allegedly spent at a nightclub in the company of the BBC’s Head of sport, Cliff Morgan and their top-ranked commentator, David Coleman, he returned to his hotel room and slept. A fly on the wall by the table frequented by the referee and the two BBC employees would doubtless have a tale to tell. Unfortunately, that particular example of Diptera was unavailable for comment. The following morning, Thomas was awoken by Friedrich Seipelt, a member of FIFA’s referee’s committee. He was there to tell Thomas that his further services would not be required at the tournament, and that he should return home. Clive Thomas would never again take charge of a World Cup match.

In his book, Thomas would say how he had dreamt of refereeing a World Cup Final, but his experiences in Argentina had been, “a month of disillusionment with football administration, my colleagues, the organisation of set-pieces, the general politics of the game and the behaviour of some of those at the highest level.” After further controversy, the Final was eventually awarded to Italian Sergio Gonella who, Thomas remarked somewhat spitefully in his book “sounds like a dance band leader and, to my mind, referees like one”. A number of the Dutch players in that final may have a measure of sympathy with Thomas’s assessment though.

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Some may argue that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the outcome of his World Cup adventure was very much created by the Clive Thomas and his individualistic way of perceiving a referee’s role. Thomas himself may well have agreed, but with an entirely different emphasis on where the blame should therefore lie. Until he retired from refereeing in 1984, an unrepentant Thomas maintained his decision was correct, insisting that, “Zico was too late. Possibly only four-tenths of a second too late, but too late nevertheless.”

Such lines are mightily finely drawn though, and one wonders whether, if Clive Thomas had not decided to be on such tricky ground on that particular side of the line, would he have got that World Cup Final he wanted. Perhaps on reflection, to some, it may well be for the best that perhaps he didn’t. If such a controversial decision in a group game is described as “probably the most controversial decision that any referee has ever made, a decision which reverberated around the world”, anything similar in the biggest game in the footballing world would write large the name of the Rhondda Valley born referee into the realms of controversy for ever, and not even Clive Thomas would want that.

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