Language barrier

The campaign for respect for referees is targeted at managers and players, but, Michael Whalley wonders, wouldn’t it be better directed at broadcasters such as Andy Gray and Eamonn Holmes?

Sky Sports News – the channel that only considers sporting events to be truly newsworthy if they have the rights to show them – was a bit stuck during the Olympics. But on the day American swimmer Michael Phelps won a record-equalling ninth gold medal, it cleared its afternoon schedules – so that Eamonn Holmes could talk to John Terry about respecting ­referees.

This was the official launch of the Premier League’s “Get On With The Game” campaign, featuring lots of footballers perched on stools in their team shirts, being quizzed by Holmes, Jeff Stelling and Richard Keys. As opening ceremonies go, it wasn’t a patch on Beijing. There weren’t even any fireworks, although Stelling performed his own athletic feat by falling off stage while interviewing Ian Ashbee, ­captain of promoted Hull. 

“Get On With The Game” is the Premier League’s response to the FA’s ­sweeping Respect initiative. If it works, it will stop anyone else emulating Javier Mascherano, who repeatedly told Steve Bennett to “fuck off” at Old Trafford, then looked amazed when he eventually got a red card. The chairmen, managers and captains of all 20 Premier League clubs have signed charters detailing standards of acceptable behaviour towards referees. TV monitors have been removed from dugouts, while Sky, Setanta and the BBC will make use of ex-referees to help all those pundits still unaware that a player doesn’t have to be “the last man” to commit a professional foul.

Not that everyone is on-message. At the launch, Martin O’Neill signed his charter and asked: “Is this me signing my own death warrant?” And Holmes hardly helped by telling Terry: “You guys are human. They’re not. They’re referees.” The messages coming out of the event were certainly mixed. ­Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore seemed to be steering a middle ground between cleaning up the game and ensuring the flashpoints that keep Andy Gray growling all weekend don’t disappear. “I do not want to take the passion out of the game, but it would be nice to take some of the venom away,” Scudamore said. There’s the problem. For most of us, passion is when your centre-half clatters their striker; venom is when their centre-half clatters your striker. And that’s where the arguments with the ref start.

There is no doubt something needed to be done about the abuse referees face at professional and amateur level. Some football writers even have direct experience of the problems facing officials. ­Manchester Evening News sports editor Peter Spencer is a qualified referee. Two years ago, he was punched to the ground by a player he was about to send off in a Lancashire and Cheshire League game. Spencer had the strength of character to continue refereeing after that incident; many others would have thrown away their whistle.

With that in mind, it was galling to witness Gray’s witless attack on Bennett for sending off Mascherano at Old Trafford on Sky in March. Respect is definitely due. But can referees expect any? Will a beaten manager be able to avoid claiming that defeat was due entirely to the officials giving a throw-in the wrong way? Will Gray resist blasting a referee at the first opportunity? The answers to those three questions, in order, are: maybe just a little bit, no and no. At the first really controversial refereeing decision of the season, Gray and friends will lay into the officials as before, but preface the attack with the phrase: “I know we’ve got to respect referees now, but…” And life will carry on as it has done.

As Premier League managers try to rein themselves in and stick to their charter, their Championship counterparts have already got stuck in. No surprise, then, that the award for slyest early-season dig at an official goes to Neil Warnock. After seeing two of his Crystal Palace players sent off against Burnley last month, Warnock decided to put his criticism of referee Iain Williamson into someone else’s mouth. “I’ve got a piece of paper in my pocket from Sir Alex Ferguson saying that this referee’s a disgrace,” Warnock said. “But I can’t say that, because I’d get into trouble, wouldn’t I?” Only if Respect was ever anything more than a means to help Sky take their minds off the Olympics, Neil.

From WSC 260 October 2008