The moralistic tone of the nation’s newspapers was hardly surprising. Considering the nature of the behaviour of Ashley Cole during last week’s match between Spurs and Chelsea and Javier Mascherano’s sending off on Sooper Dooper Sunday, there was something supremely inevitable about the press reaction to it all, with calls for sanctions for showing “disrespect” to officials being amongst the insane proposals being put forward by the Fourth Estate. One of the more curious aspects of the episode is the way in which those that are the first to criticise such behaviour are usually the people that build up every match to be the most important thing in the history of sport in the first place.
By any rational analysis, there was nothing particularly important about last Sunday’s match between Manchester United and Liverpool. Liverpool are so far behind United, Arsenal and Chelsea that it could hardly be described as a “title decider” in the conventional sense of the phrase. Over the last two decades or so, a poisonous atmosphere has built up around matches between Manchester United and Liverpool, and the press have been wholly compliant in allowing it to build and build to a screeching, screaming crescendo. If you had to pick one match from the entire Premier League calendar that things would eventually blow up in it would have been this one, and this has only been amplified in the light of Ashley Cole’s undignified behaviour last Wednesday night. There can be no question that Premier League referees were instructed to clamp down on dissent, and there can be little doubt that some managers heeded the warning, whilst others didn’t.
What has surprised me is the level of defence that Javier Mascherano has received. In the post-match analysis of Sunday’s match, Sky Sports’ Andy Gray accused referee Steve Bennett of “ruining the game as a spectacle”. In Footyworld (a mythical place that I occasionally refer to when I want to create the mental image of the world within which people “inside the game” live), Gray is allowed to pose such a question without answering the question of whether it ruins the game as a spectacle have gurning, angry players with the veins on their necks close to the point of some sort of embolism chasing referees around haranguing them over more less every single decision that they make. The fact that such a high profile incident surrounded a Liverpool player at the weekend doesn’t excuse the rest of the Premier League, either. The events at Old Trafford on Sunday were part of a wider culture within the game which has been allowed to fester over the last ten or fifteen years or so. It’s a culture within which managers are allowed to make ridiculous comments about the integrity of referees and get away with it. You don’t need me to list the amount of times that Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho or any other Premier League manager over the last few years or so has made indefensible comments about referees – the number of times that this has happened over the last few years has been countless.
Turning back to the Mascherano incident, there can be little question that he deserved his red card. If we take it as read that dissent (not to mention foul and abusive language) is a yellow card offence, the biggest surprises of Sunday were that he stayed on the pitch for as long as he did, and that no-one within the Liverpool ranks seemed to take control of the situation and try to calm him down before he was sent off. Referees are more than aware that they can’t automatically book a player every time he tells them to “fuck off”, for no other reason that if they did, most Premier League matches would have to be abandoned twenty minutes in. This, however, doesn’t make such dissent okay – it merely deflects criticism for Liverpool’s defeat away from Rafael Benitez (whose team were hopelessly outplayed by a Manchester United team that weren’t even really firing on all cylinders) and Pepe Reina (whose lamentable goalkeeping cost Liverpool their first two goals). In this respect, the constant, whining criticism of officials benefits both the players and the manager. Mascherano’s sending off has received acres more coverage than Liverpool’s performance has – Benitez and anyone else that simply doesn’t want to face up to the fact that Liverpool aren’t good enough to launch a serious challenge for the Premier League title can simply stick their fingers in their ears and carry on blaming the referee.
I’ve become heartily sick of this culture of absolution from blame that seems to surround the modern footballer and the modern football manager. The Premier League has become as successful as it has in no small part because it is faster and more frenetic than any other football league in the world. Players are fitter than ever, and they have compensated for the finite limits that you can put on developing skill and technique by beefing themselves up and playing a game that is physical and fast to the detriment of almost every other aspect of the game. In such an environment, everyone should simply accept that there will be more fouls and more mistakes, both by players and officials. Perhaps it is time for all concerned to consider that, out there in the real world, there are usually different shades of grey rather than straightforward black and white answers, and that these increasingly tiresome displays of testosterone overdosing that we see from footballers on a week in week out basis are fooling no-one.
It seems to me that there is a cosy cabal that refuses to indulge any entertainment of the thought that players should be held responsible for their own actions. If I were a manager, the first duty of my players would be to not get themselves sent off, and to especially not get themselves sent off for dissent. As professional players, they have a duty to their team mates, their managers and their supporters to behave in a professional manner on the pitch. This doesn’t happen because there are too many interests vested in blaming the officials. Ultimately, there is no need for a radical overhaul of the laws of the game. There is no need to bring in a rule saying that only the captain can speak to the referee, or that new offences for speaking to match officials in a certain way should be introduced. All the rules needed to ensure good behaviour on the pitch are already on the statute book, and it was, if anything, refreshing to see Steve Bennett upholding them on Sunday afternoon. I’m no supporter of the introduction of the birch or National Service so it feels somewhat strange to be saying it, but perhaps a period of zero tolerance with regard to the behaviour of players during matches and managers before, during and after matches could be just what the game needs.