Was that really the first week of the Premiership season, or was it an “ironic” imitation? All the familiar elements that we have come to take for granted from the shoutiest league in the world were present: refereeing controversy, managers up in arms, foreign players as victims and/or villains, and everything monitored in excruciating slow-motion by Sky.
Although most of the attention focused on the hapless Mr Poll after he sent off three players in Arsenal’s match against Liverpool, it is hard to make a coherent argument that referees are at the root of the problem. Plenty of people have been making incoherent ones of course, but who seriously believes that the introduction of professional referees, two referees, referees assisted by video technology or referees on bicycles would usher in a new era of calmness and reason? So that’s just Glenn Hoddle then?
Rather than the refs, irritating though some of them undoubtedly are, both managers and television pundits bear a heavier responsibility for the flouncy melodrama now passing itself off as a football competition. Some seem hopeless cases. When Jim Smith, for example, says that “poor refereeing costs people games” he is obviously right. However, they don’t cost Derby half as many games as poor football from the players he has selected. And, unless he is alleging bias rather than incompetence, no teams end up consistently hard done by.
Others seem capable of learning. Gordon Strachan, for example, a notorious ref-baiter in the past, is now leading calls for moderation (“We have reached the point where criticism has become farcical”) and greater honesty from managers. “That means not trying to publicly defend players who have been guilty of bad challenges.”
Peter Reid is another former combative midfielder who might be expected to close ranks around his players at all costs, but who in fact does not always do so. After last season’s clash between Alex Rae and Derby’s Darryl Powell, Reid admitted: “I’d love to say I didn’t see anything, but putting my hand on my heart, I did see something. I’ve spoken to Alex about it and it will be dealt with internally.”
It would be refreshing to hear the supposedly more cerebral Arsène Wenger say something similar once in a while (Sir Alex is obviously too deep in his bunker for anyone to reach him now). In many respects, Wenger has brought new levels of thougtfulness and maturity to the Premiership. But his reputation cannot trade forever on the fact that he wears glasses and speaks in fully-formed sentences. The perpetually aggrieved demeanour of his players and Wenger’s unwillingness to do anything about it are getting increasingly tiresome.
Although Wenger always talks as though he has considered what he is about to say, one reason for the rash of inflammatory statements from managers is that they are encouraged to give their opinions about matches to a TV camera within ten minutes of the final whistle. These days their comments are likely to be broadcast all but live on the BBC’s Final Score in plenty of time to stoke up the battalions of Mr Angrys waiting to share their views with the nation on 606. You cannot help but think that taking half an hour to cool down and even view the replay (which would at least eliminate “I didn’t see it” from the shortlist of excuses) might bring managers to a more reasoned conclusion.
That would help the FA, whose efforts to sort out the disciplinary system are certain to provoke more venom than understanding (cracks from Dennis Wise in the Sun about “them upstairs” won’t be the worst of it). However, it would hardly go down well with the paymasters at Sky, who are almost the only people who benefit from this kind of shemozzle.
Any kind of controversy helps to boost their ratings, but one which involves video replays has the additional bonus of putting Andy Gray and his chums at the centre of the drama. The misguided move to allow referees’ rulings to be overturned by a video panel is a godsend to those who have been sitting in judgment already on TV. It encourages the pundits who want on-the-spot video rulings during matches but, more important, it lends them an unwarranted air of authority and importance – and gives the green light for incidents to be reheated for days after they first occurred.
That cannot be to anyone’s benefit except the tabloids and the wall-to-wall football TV channels who thrive on friction. Sorting out the refereeing issue is not in their interests. If the game is “boiling over”, so much the better. The hype is the point of the hype.
From WSC 164 October 2000. What was happening this month