Mark Clattenburg was in charge of a game marred by only one indisputable error
However the Mark Clattenburg affair plays out, football needs to know it is facing something more than still another squall of tawdry publicity. This is the possibility that it is fast reaching the point of the ungovernable.
The beleaguered referee – placed in the dock by Chelsea, of all moral guardians of the good name of the national game, after nearly two hour of tortuous post-game deliberation, and, apparently, cross-indexing of evidence by players and club officials – was yesterday emphatic that he would fight all charges that he was guilty of inappropriate and racial comments directed at John Obe Mikel and Juan Mata.
He has received unqualified backing from his professional colleagues.
He may also have been re-enforced in his defiance by a groundswell of scepticism about the ability of any official, including the highly ranked, 37-year-old Clattenburg, to effectively control high-stake Premier League matches in the current climate of routine cheating and something at times hard to separate from outright anarchy.
Clattenburg, who was in charge of the Olympic final between Brazil and Mexico in the summer, was notably successful in maintaining the pace and the competitive edge of Sunday's taut and at times spectacular collision between Chelsea and Manchester United – right up to the moment he felt obliged to hand a second yellow then a red card to Chelsea's Fernando Torres, who in the opinion of the well-placed referee had dived after receiving what replays revealed to be the slightest contact from United defender Jonny Evans.
It is a habit of Torres and many of his like – and a prime reason to believe that referees are being stretched to breaking point.
Certainly from that moment Mark Clattenburg was besieged, most notably by Mikel, to the point where his rapid rise in the game might now be blowing in the wind.
So, too, was football and mostly by the prospect of another marathon racism controversy following those involving Luis Suarez and John Terry – a recurring nightmare made more likely by the long distance intervention of Peter Herbert, the chairman of the Black Lawyers Association who was at the heart of the proposal to set up a federation of black players. Herbert ensured the involvement of the Metropolitan Police when he reported his concern that racial abuse may have occurred.
There is, of course, the possibility that it might have done and if it did Clattenburg, who has known several crises in his meteoric rise in football, would earn little sympathy with a defence that he lapsed under the most intense pressure.
Yet if a proven case of racial abuse is inviolate as it rises above all other factors, this doesn't mean that football could comfortably separate itself from the appalling situation in which Clattenburg found himself after making a series of match-changing but, in his opinion, unavoidable decisions.
From the Chelsea dressing room we have had confirmation that Mikel, the most voluble of Clattenburg's complainers, insistently demanded to know why he and his team-mates could not openly challenge the referee's decisions. There is also the experience of former leading referee Graham Poll, who in 2006 had to fight charges made by Chelsea trio Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole that he had threatened to "sort them out" and "teach them a lesson" for past misdemeanours.
Poll steadfastly denied the claims and was fully supported by his match official colleagues. Poll was cleared and soon after the Chelsea players, such potent figures in the shaping of the club's culture, went on the Chelsea website to retract their claims.
If an outcome to the racism charge has to await due process, we can certainly make an interim judgement on the extent of the referee's ordeal.
Innocent or guilty of the accusation that will inevitably dominate any final verdict on the events of last Sunday afternoon Clattenburg's plight can only provide fresh ammunition for those who believe the referee's job is verging on the untenable.
The fact is that Clattenburg was in charge of a game marred by only one indisputable and significant error – and it just happened to be beyond his control. The winning goal of United's Javier Hernandez was clearly offside but then Clattenburg checked for a linesman's flag and it was only when it did not appear that he signalled a goal.
Gary Neville, now acclaimed by many as the game's most insightful analyst, did give Clattenburg the barb that he made two decisions on Torres and that both of them were wrong.
The Chelsea player, according to Neville, should have received a straight red for a high tackle but gone unpunished for the dive. Yet if Torres's first offence was serious, it was not to be compared with the horrendous lunge Nigel de Jong inflicted on Xabi Alonso during the last World Cup final. The Dutchman, who can forget, received merely a yellow card from England's number one referee Howard Webb.
Neville was unmoved by the pressure on referees. They took the job and they should get on with it.
But under what conditions and with what support from a professional game which filters every incident through the perspective of self-interest? Without technology, or the support of a working morality among those they have to control, what chance do referees have?
It is approaching zero in a game moving beyond self-discipline and even a hint of conscience.
Five questions that need answering
1. Did Mark Clattenburg use inappropriate language towards Chelsea players on Sunday?
The referee has denied using insulting words toward any Chelsea players at Stamford Bridge.
2. Could Mikel have mis-heard Clattenburg's words?
The noise of the crowd may have distorted what the Nigerian believed he had heard.
3. Did Clattenburg's decisions favour Manchester United?
Torres' second yellow was debatable but he consulted his linesman on Hernandez's late winner.
4. Was he capable of handling such a high-profile fixture?
Clattenburg has officiated in the Premier League for eight years and also took charge of last summer's Olympic final at Wembley.
5. Do Chelsea have history of intimidating referees?
Graham Poll was surrounded by Chelsea players in 2006, but they were not charged with intimidation.