Onlookers heard him say, "I'll break your f**king legs". The target of that threat, Mark Clattenburg, heard him say, "I'll smash your f**king face in".
And just as shocking was the leniency of the punishment.
John Obi Mikel was given a three-game ban and a fine of £60,000 after accepting a charge of 'using threatening and/or abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour' towards referee Mark Clattenburg. He had stormed into Clattenburg's dressing room after Chelsea's 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in October and had to be restrained and removed by members of the Chelsea coaching staff.
Mikel and Chelsea have accepted the ruling that makes him unavailable for domestic duty until December 26, but it was the FA statement on the decision that caught my eye.
"The Regulatory Commission's independent chairman Christopher Quinlan QC emphasised that the Independent Regulatory Commission accepted, as did the FA, that at the time he threatened the referee the player genuinely believed that the referee had racially abused him. But for that factor the suspension would have been significantly longer."
Mikel thought he had been wronged by Clattenburg and explained his subsequent behaviour in that context. Fair enough, he needed to account for his outburst in some way. He had asked for a personal hearing and had the right to give his version of events. But why such weight was given to that in considering the length of the ban is beyond me.
Are we really at a stage where a variation of 'he started it' can be used as an acceptable line of defence in these cases? So what if a player was upset with a referee? So what if a player was incensed with the referee at the time of an attack?
When was the last time a player abused a referee without believing he had been wronged in the first place? It has never happened. Referees don't get threatened because people agree with their decisions or are impressed by their demeanour. Looking favourably on a player who stormed the referee's dressing room after a game because he thought he had a genuine grievance against that referee is a joke. It's either a serious offence or it's not. The officials either deserve protection against that form of dissent or they don't. Being offended and riled up should never be considered a mitigating factor.
The referees' trade union, Prospect, expressed their dismay at the leniency shown to Mikel and the weight given to his line of defence. National secretary Alan Leighton said his behaviour warranted a strong deterrent penalty and it's hard to disagree. Three-game bans are given to players for serious foul play. What Mikel did was far more serious and the finding should have reflected that.
Officials get abused and mocked because people believe them to be anything from incompetent to dishonest. Mikel believed Clattenburg to be a racist at the time of the altercation because he thought he called him a monkey and justified his actions on that basis. Obviously, Clattenburg has been since cleared of any wrongdoing, something the Committee was aware of when making their ruling on Thursday.
So can every player in this position in the future look for leniency on the grounds of incorrectly believing the referee to be something he is not? I know the accusation was for calling him a monkey and not specifically being racist but at the time Mikel would not have separated the two. Had Clattenburg been found guilty of using that word in that context, I wouldn't either.
But suppose a player justified such behaviour by wrongly believing the referee to be crooked? Or too incompetent? Where do you draw the line?
It shouldn't matter what players think of the referee or his behaviour. The Prospect statement rightly pointed out that a
player in parks football found guilty of Mikel's behaviour would have received a long-term ban.
Referees have always been convenient scapegoats for fans, players and managers. Thinking they are not up to the job is fine and shouting it from the stands is okay too. But when a player believes he is in the right to barge into the referee's dressing room to threaten him, he should be met with the sternest of punishment. There is no context in which it should be remotely justified. Believing the referee to be racist isn't acceptable grounds to attack them. Mikel wasn't to know at the time that Clattenburg said nothing of that nature, but that should not have come into the minds of the Regulatory Committee.
I've never heard of players being let off lightly because they thought less of the referee at the time they attacked them. This ruling and the statement which explained it is setting a precedent which is open to widespread abuse in the future. But it won't surprise referees that once again they'll bear the brunt of that.