Tuesday 25 March ~
As Alex Ferguson warned his team before Sunday's game, player dissent and on-field behaviour were both in sharp focus following Ashley Cole's back-turning at White Hart Lane last Wednesday. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Javier Mascherano hadn't read the papers during the week and so was sent off for dissent by referee Steve Bennett. Players have much to gain from intimidating or harassing a referee so many will operate as close as to the legal boundaries as possible. Managers are also happy for this continue as long as it appears to give their side an advantage, so they refuse to condemn their players, instead finding other targets for their ire – usually the referee.
Liverpool have tried to present Mascherano as the victim while the player is continuing to protest loudly his innocence. John Arne Riise has also claimed that Bennett should have warned Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard of Mascherano's imminent dismissal. Unfortunately this claim falls flat – despite his team responsibilities Gerrard was conspicuous by his absence while Mascherano was sent off. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has previously seen Gerrard follow a referee round the pitch, berating the official for most of the game.
Seemingly by coincidence, as well as the Ashley Cole incident the FA launched a “Respect” campaign last week. This is based around small pilot schemes at youth and adult level across the UK; as much concern surrounds poor behaviour from players towards referees as “tackling pushy parents on the sidelines”. But the recent bad behaviour of high profile players and the Premier League's culture of rage has forced this issue to be examined at the highest levels. Gordon Taylor has called for referees to be a “no-go area”.
One of the prime managerial justifications for player dissent – that players and managers don't currently know where the boundaries lie – might seem like a diversionary tactic but, while not excusing certain players' behaviour, there is some truth to it. In the the Express, Alan Curbishley claimed: “Nobody quite knows what they can say, or get away with.” This is a worsening problem that must be remedied as soon as possible and it ought to be the FA's responsibility. Are they up to it? We await their next move. Ed Upright