Saturday 10 January ~

Was yesterday the day that Liverpool proved themselves to be true title challengers? In the last 20 years few managers have mounted a charge for the top of the table without at one point losing their head and letting fly at the behaviour of Alex Ferguson. It happened to Jose Mourinho, it happened to Kevin Keegan, it happened to Arsene Wenger on more than one occasion and you can now add Rafa Benitez to that list.

At the head of Benitez’s issues with Ferguson was his treatment of referees. Producing a piece of paper with his charges on it like a schoolboy reading a well practised speech Benitez described how Ferguson liked to go “man-to-man” with referees at Old Trafford (neglecting to mention if he used a more continental zonal system at Anfield) before adding: "We had a Respect campaign meeting and I said forget it, because Mr Ferguson is killing the referees.” Coverage of Benitez’s outburst has focused mainly on the rather tedious subject of Ferguson’s mastery of mind games, like he is some kind of cross between Sigmund Freud and Derren Brown, and not just a wind-up merchant. And that is a shame because while Benitez’s rant may have been ill-judged in terms of his side’s title bid, his concerns about Ferguson’s treatment of the Respect campaign is merited and he was only incorrect in restricting his disgust to Ferguson’s behaviour.

Barely a Match of the Day goes by without a manager complaining about the state of refereeing in this country, a situation that you feel hasn’t been helped by the return to the Premier League of both Joe Kinnear and Sam Allardyce in the space of a few months. But while you would presume this behaviour would be condemned, you can bank that Gary, Alan and Alan will instead spend their time saying they “understand managers’ frustrations”, befuddled that this man in black thinks he deserves to be on the same pitch as such models of consistency as Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard.

With each incident we hear that the standard of refereeing is slipping, usually supported by super-slow-motion footage that proves on the fourth watch that an incident was almost certainly outside the penalty area. In fact what has actually slipped is any attempt to understand how difficult it must be to referee a top-level football match. We are more than willing to jump on Alex Ferguson’s ability to play with the world’s best footballing minds yet for some reason we expect referees to be models of impossible perfection. Josh Widdicombe

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