Refereeing the managers

THE SCENARIO may make football writers break out in a cold sweat while those in charge of Sky Sports would have nightmares about the possibility. Imagine managers, coaches and players being banned from talking about match officials. It would change the face of football reporting dramatically and that’s putting it mildly.

True, we have fought for the right to have freedom of speech but with that there must be responsibility and managers who question the honesty, impartiality and integrity of referees do not so much cross the line as leap over it like Bob Beamon at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.

In the land of the free, the National Football League have a regulation than bans coaches and players from commenting about the ‘zebras’ as American football officials are nicknamed. They can talk about anything else…but not the men who officiate matches.

This observer believes that the constant criticism of referees and assistant referees by, usually, the losing manager has become boring and predictable. Match officials are the easiest way to pass the buck, a convenient excuse for a team’s inadequacies. Yes, referees and those previously known as linesmen make mistakes, human errors in the heat of the battle with split-second decisions from one angle in real time.

Not for them the luxury of slow-motion multi-angle playbacks but having said that, there have been too many mistakes by referees, particularly, at Premier League level, missing incidents they really ought to have spotted.

However, does this excuse the ‘blasting’ or ‘laying into’ of the ref by a manager after the game? What purpose does it serve other than to provide sensational headlines? And on too many occasions a manager will put the boot in to a referee because he does not have even a working knowledge of the laws and the ref has, in fact, been correct. As managers say about football writers, never let the facts…

Belatedly the FA are charging managers for inappropriate comments about referees, Sir Alex Ferguson is again in trouble for what he said in the build-up to Manchester United’s 2-1 Barclays Premier League victory over Chelsea last Sunday. While Ferguson spoke positively about Howard Webb, he broke FA rules which state that no manager should speak about a referee prior to a match.

Ferguson had said: “We are getting the best referee, there is no doubt about that. But [getting a bad decision] is definitely our big fear. We have the players to do it all right. We just hope it’s our turn for a little bit of luck.”

The Scot is just back in the technical area after completing a five-game ban plus a £30,000 fine for his criticism’s of Martin Atkinson following a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea in March. Some regarded the punishment as severe, others too lenient. To make a manager watch the game from a few rows behind the dug-out is football’s equivalent of the naughty step. Until the FA fall in line with UEFA and prohibit a manager from any contact with his players at the stadium managers will not regard the punishment as a deterrent.

Ferguson will be furious at the latest charge to the extent he may bring down the media shutters for the second time this season. It would not surprise me if he refused to speak to the media after tomorrow’s game against Blackburn even though United could clinch the title at Ewood Park.

At the moment the FA’s regulations seem too spurious and subjective. While it is extremely unlikely they will impose a blanket ban on managers and players talking about referees the idea is not without merit. It may be a case of bolting the stable door but the idea of not talking about match officials is surely worth at least an experiment for, say, two months. The initiative could come from the League Managers’ Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association.

One of the saddest developments in English football in recent years is the necessity for match officials in the Barclays Premier League to arrive at stadiums in “safe cars.” The officials meet at a hotel a few miles from the ground and are driven to and from the match because it had become unsafe for them to arrive at stadiums in their own cars.

Some referees had been threatened or even assaulted in the car park after games; one official’s car was damaged while he was waiting for the lights to change outside a London ground. The fans’ unacceptable behaviour can be fuelled by the negative comments and criticism by managers who can almost brainwash supporters into thinking that the referee was the reason their team lost. Not the striker who missed an open goal or the goalie letting the ball clip through his fingers but the ref who, slo-mo replays showed, allegedly got it wrong.

But as Ferguson prepares for yet another FA charge it is difficult to grasp the logic of the guardians of English punishing someone for what they say or making a V-sign yet claiming they are powerless to punish a player for a tackle missed by the referee that puts an opponent out of the game for three months “because it was an on-ball incident.”

The regulations should always ensure a natural sense of justice and when a V-sign or Twitter comments are punished but horrendous challenges are not it is surely time for the FA’s disciplinary rule-book to be updated.

Christopher Davies

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