"Uncontroversial, non-dictatorial and magnanimous are not adjectives I would associate with Clive Thomas, " wrote Clive White in the Times in April 1981, after "a ludicrous penalty award" had handed Wolves a last-minute equaliser against Tottenham in an FA Cup semi-final. "There is a view that the best referees make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. 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."
Three years later David Lacey described Thomas in the Guardian as "one of football's better referees". Yet "when controversy has thrown its arms around Clive's neck he has tended to linger lovingly in the embrace. What Clive does have is a keen sense of history. The fall of Jericho would have been delayed while Thomas booked the wall. At the Battle of Copenhagen Nelson would have been cautioned for dissent. At Waterloo Blucher would have been sent off for entering the field late and without permission."
In April 1977 Thomas took charge of another Cup semi, a Merseyside derby, in which he disallowed a perfectly good late winner for Everton – for handball, though he admitted that "in no way could I have seen the ball make contact with his hand or his arm" – because he wasn't sure what else Bryan Hamilton might have used to divert it into the net (it came off his hip). In the 1981 League Cup final he allowed a 117th-minute Liverpool goal even though the ball passed just over the prostrate and clearly offside Sammy Lee, dismissing his linesman's raised flag without consultation.
Then there was the game between West Ham and Birmingham City in February 1974, a tense encounter between two sides battling relegation. The game ended 0-0, but Thomas's officiating inspired the crowd to launch into a chorus of the then-popular terrace anthem, Oh, Oh, What a Referee! And Thomas joined in with gusto. "There I was on television, singing away," he wrote. "Ken Aston of Fifa was at that match and he told me I'd had a good game, but I wonder if he saw me doing that singing. I feared that that was not the sort of thing they were looking for."
Aston, it turned out, was far from offput. Thomas became the second-youngest referee at that summer's World Cup, and though he took charge of only two group games he was involved, in a manner of speaking, throughout the competition. Referees were still emphatically amateur, and Thomas paid his bills by producing and selling referee's equipment. And so it was that every official in Argentina sported the Clive Thomas Kit, composed of Terylene shorts and Crimplene jersey. "His experiments with kit," the Guardian enthused, "have helped to invest the ranks of referees with a little more elegance."
By the 1978 World Cup Thomas was 41 and in his prime, if no longer in the kit supply business (he worked for an office cleaning company at the time, heading to Argentina with a pledge to make footballers “keep it clean”). To say he failed to enjoy the tournament would be an understatement: in his autobiography Thomas described it as “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”; it was here he was to ascend to international infamy. In his book he describes the moment for which he is now best remembered as “probably the most controversial decision that any referee has ever made, a decision which reverberated around the world”.
His first assignment was a group game between 1958 finalists, Brazil and Sweden. It was not likely to be straightforward, with Brazil carrying the pressure of favouritism and a reputation for brutality. Before the match Sweden’s manager, Georg Ericson, described Brazil as “dirty”. “Thankfully,” he said, “we have got a strong referee in Clive Thomas, generally regarded as the best one here.”
The first 90 minutes have been forgotten. Thomas Sjöberg put Sweden ahead in the 37th minute, and Reinaldo equalised in first-half stoppage time. The score remained 1-1 as the match neared its conclusion. Brazil, pushing for victory, won a corner, and then another, and, in the dying seconds, a third. Nelinho, the right-back, prepared to take it. He was in no hurry. He placed the ball outside the arc, and the Polish linesman, Alojzy Jarguz, told him to move it. Thomas checked his watch. Six seconds of stoppage time had been played, and though the ball had not been in play for any of it, he thought it was almost over. Nelinho finally took the kick and, with the ball in the air, Thomas blew his whistle and turned for the tunnel. Behind him Zico headed the ball into the net.
Brazil had scored their winner, a fraction of a second too late. “I find it unbelievable, incredible,” said their manager, Cláudio Coutinho. “The players are sad, depressed.” (Not as sad as they would be when eventually denied a place in the final after the hosts, needing to win by four goals, thumped Peru 6-0 in a game still seen as suspect.)
In the run-up to the tournament the referees were sent a contract which stipulated they should not speak to the press. Thomas refused to sign it. "You know me," he told the Mirror in May. "If I've got something to say I say it." And so it was that, minutes after the final whistle in Mar del Plata, there were two British journalists in Thomas's dressing room. They told him that rumours were circulating that he was to be sent home; he gave them some quotes for the following day's editions. "I saw the header, but I didn't see the ball go into the net. I had turned away," he said. "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."
Thomas flew back to Buenos Aires, and went straight to bed. He was roused by former Wales rugby union international Cliff Morgan, then BBC head of sport, who, in an unexpected turn of events, took him nightclubbing with David Coleman. He returned in the early hours and "slept the sleep of the just", but was woken the following morning by Friedrich Seipelt, a member of Fifa's referee's committee, who told him he was going home. He would never again take charge of a World Cup match.
The Welshman was predictably furious. It had been his dream to referee the final, which was eventually officiated by the Italian Sergio Gonella who, according to Thomas, "sounds like a danceband leader and, to my mind, referees like one".
Thomas continued to referee until 1984, maintaining to the end that his most infamous decision had been correct. “Zico was too late,” he insisted. “Possibly only four-tenths of a second too late, but too late nevertheless.”