Howard Webb looses his place in Manchester United to Mark Clattenburg!

By Steven Howard
If it goes on like this, Howard Webb will lose his place in the Manchester United side to Mark Clattenburg.

Very harsh, perhaps. But not totally unfair. It’s a sentiment a few others may well be sharing this morning after United escaped from Stamford Bridge yesterday with their first win there in a decade.

Manager Alex Ferguson has moaned for years that United never get anything at Chelsea except a raw deal.

Twice in the last few years alone he has seen his side depart empty-handed after Martin Atkinson blundered in giving free-kicks which led to goals that turned out to be Chelsea winners.

After United, for a change, got away with daylight robbery, Ferguson said: “We have had some shocking decisions down here over the years.”

There were more of them yesterday. This time, though, they were in United’s favour and went some way towards making the deeply suspicious Scot feel that, maybe, the world is not always against him and his lovely boys.

He will have got this unlikely sensation for the first time last season when United came back to share the points after trailing 3-0 at half-time. Now, for the second successive season, he was able to leave Stamford Bridge with something other than the hump.

For that he can thank his new mate Clattenburg, who came up with the sort of United-friendly decisions we always thought to be the exclusive territory of the previously mentioned Webb.

All in all, it was a staggeringly inept performance from a man claimed to be our second-best match official. It would then get worse when Clattenburg was reported to the FA by Chelsea for twice using ‘inappropriate language’ towards their players.

Refereeing in this country has been a disgrace for so many years that it was only going to be a matter of time before they became the great talking point once more.

In a way, perhaps, we should thank them as I’m not sure there’s much left to wring out of a race debate that both sides have grown increasingly weary of.

But that doesn’t excuse the manner in which the appalling Clattenburg ruined one of the season’s great matches yesterday.

A capacity crowd and millions at home had been swept along on a carousel of thrills, spills and emotions as the European champions locked horns with the latest team to come off the Old Trafford conveyor belt.

They had seen Robin van Persie power United into a 2-0 lead inside the opening 12 minutes as the visitors attacked what they deemed the weak point in the Chelsea defence — England left-back Ashley Cole. Well, if not Cole then certainly Chelsea’s left flank, where both Oscar and Eden Hazard were giving Cole no cover whatsoever.

Twice, United broke down the left and twice the ball was cut back for Van Persie to hammer home. But Chelsea fought back with guts and style.

A perfectly-struck Juan Mata free-kick — after Wayne Rooney had clipped Hazard’s ankles when the Belgian had the cheek to nick the ball off old spudface — made it 2-1 just before the break. A powerful Ramires header eight minutes into the second-half then made it all-square.

No one, not even the United fans, could deny Chelsea hadn’t earned it. Everything had been set up for a magical, pulsating last half hour.

Enter the clod-hopping Clattenburg in the 63rd minute.

OK, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt over the first red card that reduced Chelsea to 10 men. Not that I want to.

But people keep banging on about how rules are rules and if a forward (Ashley Young) bites the dust when pursued by a defender (Branislav Ivanovic) and if that defender is the last defender even though contact is minimal then... on yer bike, son.

Yet there should be some leeway for refs in ‘last defender’ situations where there is neither shirt-tugging, tripping or anything out of the pages of the ‘Sly Art of Defending’.

Perhaps, in cases like this, there should be a case for just a yellow.

But it was the second red card — five minutes later — that condemned Clattenburg as the villain of the piece.

OK, Chelsea striker Fernando Torres has earned a reputation over the last few seasons as a play actor.

But for him to have received a second yellow for allegedly diving over a Jonny Evans tackle was a nonsense. Many will say the Spaniard had it coming as he could well have been sent off for an earlier throat-high tackle on Tom Cleverley.

But that is not the point. The point is, in that case, Clattenburg made two decisions about Torres and got them both wrong.

He and his linesman then put the icing on the cake.

They did so by failing to detect that Javier Hernandez was offside as the Mexican substitute scored United’s 75th-minute winner.

Then came the later allegations of ‘inappropriate language’ aimed at two players, one believed to be Jon Obi Mikel.

Not a great day for Clattenburg who has got referees right back where they don’t want to be. All over the back pages.