The language used by the Football Association can be most perplexing at times. In the aftermath of Sunday afternoon’s one-all draw at Tottenham Hotspur Sir Alex Ferguson was up to familiar tricks, holding the officials – and in particular assistant Simon Beck – responsible for his team dropping two points after having led for most of the match, whilst appearing to question not only their competence but also their impartiality. Ferguson has been doing this for years, to the extent that it has become something akin to received wisdom that he is merely playing a long game, indirectly harassing officials in the belief that this will come to benefit his club at dome indeterminate point in the future. To see Ferguson in the news yet again for such misdemeanours may not be much of a surprise, but he is far from the only Premier League manager who has been sucked in by this apparent belief that ‘mind games’ (it is surely only a matter of time before a Premier League club attempts to hire Derren Brown to have a brief ‘chat’ with the officials before matches) carries some sort of quantifiable benefit for their club, and grown men in sportswear surrendering their dignity in order to harangue the poor buggers charged with the – literally – thankless task of having to try and keep them under control long ago became synonymous with every single game of professional football being played, every single weekend.
Of course, it’s easy descend into Colonel Blimp territory at this stage in this particular circular argument, bemoaning a lost golden age of moral rectitude and silent obedience, but current concerns regarding the language used by clubs in relation to refereeing performances isn’t solely about seeking to return the game to a long lost – and frequently illusory – Corinthian age. It is clear that, in recent seasons, there has been a shift in the rhetoric used by both managers and supporters with regard to referees and, increasingly frequently, linesmen, both before and after matches. We’re all conspiracy theorists nowadays, stubbornly certain that every missed tap and every ill-advised flag is part of a wider plot to destabilise our club and definitely our club alone. What’s more, we have the technology to prove it now, with dozens of different camera angles, from which we can pick the most flattering angle to support our point of view and then repeat on a loop until we are sobbing into our official club merchandise at the damned injustice of it all.
If supporters can be forgiven the worst aspects of their behaviour on account of the irrational element that makes up a reasonable proportion of what it takes be a “fan” (which is, of course, a contraction of the word “fanatic”, with all the connotations that come with that word), though, what excuse could there be for managers and players? It’s true to say that there is more money swilling around in football than ever before and that, if we are inclined toward such analogies, “the stakes” are higher than they may have once been. Are we really, however, supposed to believe that, say, winning the Champions League somehow “means more” to Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 than winning the European Cup might have done to Sir Matt Busby in 1968, and can anybody seriously imagine Busby talking about match officials using the language that Ferguson did on Sunday afternoon under any circumstances? It frequently feels as if football has lost its ability to admit defeat with any sort of and for those involved in it to ever admit any form of weakness or shortcoming.
While this may all sound like an attack on Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Alex Ferguson alone, it isn’t meant to. The criticisms of his post-match behaviour on Sunday could be levelled at most, if not all, managers throughout the course of a season. So perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time for managers to be barred from giving post-match interviews. The laws of the game no longer contain that dread phrase, “seeking to gain an advantage,” but the rules haven’t changed so much as to enable the introduction of a rule which outlaws such gamesmanship in post-match interviews from managers. All the FA have been able to do this week has been to ask him to explain his comments about Beck and that, if we work to the assumption that managers are generally trying to play a long game with match officials, isn’t going to make any difference to the way that he, or any other Premier League manager, talks about them. If the current standard of discourse continues its descent through thinly-veiled accusations of bias or incompetence, it might not even be surprising to see a match official issue a writ for slander against a manager in the foreseeable future, citing reputational damage and potential loss of earnings in the event of being subsequently withdrawn from a match by the PGMOL for “becoming the story” after such an outburst by a manager.
Touchline bans and token fines are never going to cut it. We surely all already know that much. If clubs have issues with officials, they should raise their concerns quietly to the authorities concerned and allow them to deal with them as they see fit rather than going first to the media in order to make sure that their opinions are in the public sphere before anybody has the chance to say anything rational. And if they can’t be trusted to speak in turn after matches, then perhaps it is time for a cooling off period after matches to allow managers time to perhaps get a little perspective on the events that they have just witnessed. None of this is suggested out of a desire to somehow stifle free speech or out of bias in favour of or against any particular club or manager, but because the weekly complaints of some manager or other – and there is at least one every single week – have become distractions that are impossible to ignore, and because this weekly hum of – often manufactured – “controversy” is another little niggle, chipping away still further at a game that some people are already starting to fall out of love with for a variety of different reasons. Sir Matt Busby has been quoted as once having said that, “If anything is to be gained by football, it is to be gained by winning or losing with dignity.” We can only wonder what he – and others of his generation – would think of the behaviour of the football managers of 2013.
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