Respect. What Respect?

The Boxing Day football programme served as the latest reminder that the sport’s much vaunted respect campaign is now dead in the water. Chief protagonist on this occasion, and not for the first time, was knight of the realm Sir Alex Ferguson. After a Jonny Evans own goal was allowed to stand despite an offside flag, Ferguson ranted at the referee, his assistant and the fourth official during Manchester United’s 4-3 win over Newcastle. Unfortunately, for seasoned watchers of the Premier League, Ferguson’s touchline antics are nothing new. When it comes to displaying disrespect for officials, the United manager is a serial offender.

No one can ever doubt Ferguson’s brilliance as a manager, nor his immense stature within the game. His achievements rank him as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, managers that football has ever known. Sadly, this stature has protected him for too long. Referees and the FA have consistently proven themselves unable or unwilling to punish him for his unacceptable behaviour on the touchline. He has become virtually untouchable. Ferguson, intelligent as he is, knows this. He knows he can act with near complete impunity. However objectionable his conduct, he knows from years of experience that the footballing authorities will fail to act. At worst, he will receive a paltry fine or be confined to the stands for a couple of matches. Even these punishments are rare.

Whilst Ferguson himself is the primary culprit in this instance, he is not alone in his responsibility for the regular abuse and dissent that is directed towards officials. Referees and the sport’s governing bodies allow this sort of behaviour to exist. They must do more to punish offenders. The referee in Manchester United’s game on Boxing Day, Mike Dean, did not even mention Ferguson’s conduct in his match report. As such, no further action will be taken.

Referees are in a difficult situation. But they could help themselves and their colleagues by taking a firmer stance against dissent. They must book players more often, send them off if need be. It is not the referee’s responsibility to keep all the players on the pitch if those players are behaving badly. They can send more managers to the stands and be prepared to report offenders to the authorities. The FA should be able to look at events retrospectively and impose yellow or red cards where, for whatever reason, the referee has taken no action. Ultimately, teams should face the prospect of a points deduction if they repeatedly abuse officials. Only strong, consistent action from all officials and the governing bodies will have any chance of success.

The wider football establishment also bears some of the blame. Some pundits and former players are reluctant to condemn dissent. Rather than chiding players and managers for the terrible example they set, or for making a mockery of demands for respect within the game, they cite abuse given to officials as examples of ‘passion’ and a winning mentality. Ferguson in particular is celebrated as the epitome of desire, passion and competitiveness. By abusing officials, he is merely reminding the world that he is a winner who cares deeply about the game.

This absurd argument ought to be rejected out of hand. It is not passion or a deep desire to win that drives Ferguson, and others, to such depths. It comes from years of terrible behaviour that has gone unpunished, even accepted, by the footballing community. Ferguson is a serial offender. The abuse he gives to officials is part of a deliberate campaign to intimidate them in the hope that he may get a decision or two in his favour. He is not alone. Shouting abuse at officials is the norm in football for players, managers and supporters. The sport is home to an ugly culture of dissent, tolerating behaviour that would be condemned in any other walk of life. Yes it is frustrating when a referee disallows a perfectly good goal for your team, or gives your opponent an undeserved penalty. But such frustration is no excuse for the disgraceful conduct towards officials that is too frequently on show at a football match from players, managers and supporters.

Conduct that would be deemed wholly unacceptable in other sports, played with equal passion and desire to win, or in society at large, somehow becomes wholly acceptable within the confines of a football stadium. In the street, shouting and swearing at someone could lead to arrest. In the football stadium it is par for the course, a manifestation of competitive spirit that ought to be tolerated. There is nothing wrong with being competitive, with being passionate. We want our football to enjoy these qualities. But it is wrong to believe, as football seems to, that these qualities must inextricably lead to mass dissent and abuse towards officials. We do not tolerate behaviour like this in other sports or in any other walk of life. We cannot keep making football an exception.

BY: Thomas Raine