5 November 2009 ~ Sir Alex Ferguson’s suggestion that Rio Ferdinand’s loss of form was a result of critical examination by the press marked another low point in the United manager’s relations with the media. There is no doubt that Ferguson is, at best, grumpy. But his behaviour comes as no surprise to anybody and fits a pattern that is well understood. His press conferences resemble some kind of asymmetrical WWF tag match: the lone Sir Alex “the by no means extinct volcano” Ferguson versus the press pack. His conference ahead of the recent Champions League tie with CSKA Moscow followed the usual well choreographed pattern.
Ferguson was questioned on the FA charges that resulted from his unnecessarily personal remarks about referee Alan Wiley’s fitness. The Volcano met the attack with an often seen dodge: “Silly question, gets no answer.” A new member of the press pack entered the ring with “It’s not a silly question,” after which Ferguson pulled his classic move and stormed out. This was reported as if it was news and is used as yet a further example of Ferguson’s arrogance towards the press. It is impossible to defend the attack on Wiley, but the press seized eagerly on the demands by Prospect, the match officials’ union, for Ferguson to receive an extensive “stadium ban”. A more balanced report may well have examined the proportionality of the suggested punishment. Just as easily, there might have been an examination of the ways in which match officials could respond more constructively to criticism.
It is mandatory in any discussion of a referee’s performance to acknowledge the difficulties of the role. That said, referees wield the power to determine the outcome of matches but are rarely held accountable for the way in which that power is discharged. It may be the case that referees' chief Keith Hackett issues an apology here and there, or withdraws an official from a scheduled match but that is often the end of the matter. How much more constructive would it be if officials were required to explain the factors they took into account when reaching a decision? It would help managers, fans and players to understand better “the judgement calls” that are made.
Take for example this past weekend which saw the egregious Phil Brown complaining that Geovanni’s free kick at Burnley had been disallowed for what the referee gnomically described as “an upper body offence”. In no sense does that meet the requirement of an explanation, but surely it would be legitimate for journalists to examine the point in more detail.
Which brings us back to Ferguson’s relations with the press. Rather than simply triggering an easily anticipated response, it would have more productive to ask a question about how the relationship between managers and referees might be improved. The outcome would, in any event, have been preferable to the sad sight of well paid journalists scavenging for headlines in the ashes of the latest volcanic eruption. Brian Simpson