The official line

Hard as it is to believe, some players may actually be in the wrong when it comes to officiating, just don't try to tell them that

Arsene Wenger made a piece of personal history during the recent 1-1 draw at Southampton, by acknowledging that one of his players, Robin van Persie, was at fault for being sent off: “He knows he should not have done what he did. I could not support him.” Earlier in the match, the home side’s David Prutton had to restrained by Harry Redknapp when seemingly intent on thumping the assistant referee having also got a second yellow card. “I was really upset because we are in a relegation battle and it is not about kicking people up in the air,” said Redknapp.

Managers publically criticising their players is rare; less unusual was the way the players themselves reacted. Having been sent off for a violent lunge at Robert Pires that could have broken an ankle, Prutton barged into the referee before heading for another encounter on the touchline. Van Persie was less physical in his protestations, but highly verbal.

There are more cards than ever these days – but that’s not down to the officials. Referees can be reasonably criticised for inconsistency in interpreting the laws, but that doesn’t excuse many players’ volcanic reaction to being booked or sent off. Often they are clearly in breach of strict regulations that carry automatic penalties. That is down to the law makers, not the law enforcers. For instance, FIFA have announced an experiment under which players denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity in the penalty area will not be sent off; it’s not down to individual officials, though, not to uphold a current law in the meantime.

Referees should tolerate some verbal abuse flying around in the heat of a match, but many players no longer seem to recognise any limits. These complaints have nothing to do with the fatuous “footballer as role model” beloved of blimpish leader writers in the Daily Mail; but simply about respect for other people doing their job. No one could fail to be repelled by the sight of Lee Bowyer yelling in Jeff Winter’s face after he had already been dismissed during a Leeds match a few years ago; or Wayne Rooney’s extraordinary torrent at Graham Poll last month; or Prutton’s stupidity, which he had the decency to accept was wrong, pleading guilty to two FA charges.

The arrogance of some footballers stems in part from the enclosed world in which they live: just as they don’t expect to be turned away from nightclubs for being drunk or because a doorman hasn’t recognised them, so they can’t conceive of being sent off, of accepting responsibility for having done something wrong. But just as it’s said that when children behave badly you have to look at what they have learned from their parents, so it is with certain footballers. An increasing number of matches end with the referee and assistants having to stand near the centre circle surrounded by stewards while a manager waiting to give them a volley of abuse is ushered away. Sometimes managers don’t have to wait for the end of the match, especially since fourth officials are now near at hand – Graeme Souness and Sir Alex Ferguson are among those to have been ordered from the dugout during games.

Nor does the packing-up of the matchday circus spell an end to the abuse. Part of this is down to Sky, whose 24-hour promotion channel for their sports coverage needs “news” with which to fill itself. Put a camera in front of a manager, or replay the footage of an incident and ask a talking head if the referee was right – “a bit harsh”, said by someone who hasn’t read the rulebook in his life, is enough to cast doubt on a valid decision.

But the main problem is on matchday, with indignant managers explaining in detail why a referee has, once again, seen fit to deny their club a vital three points. If managers have to give vent they should at least decide not to talk about the referee until a certain time after the match, when their blood pressure has settled. It’s not impossble. The famously voluble Brian Clough had an opinion on every conceivable subject, some badly wrong, but he managed to comment only very rarely on refereeing decisions and indeed fined his players if they were booked for dissent – “the most stupid card you can ever pick up”, he once said.

Short of arming referees with Tasers, gagging (literally) managers and closing down Sky Sports News, what can be done? Officials, cowed by the pressure from all sides, must summon up their willpower and collectively enforce the law that moves free-kicks forward ten yards in the event of dissent. But one simple step, that in the (very) long run would even improve the quality of punditry is simply to force all trainees to learn the laws of football; even get them to referee younger age-group games.

It is a common complaint of old pros such as Andy Gray that referees, having not played at the highest level, don’t understand aspects of the game. The reverse of that is that few players have reffed at any level, and that’s a hell of a lot easier to do something about.

From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month