You know, it was quite a pleasure to watch the women’s FA Cup final the other day. Not because of the level of skill – there was quite a bit, although not on a par with the top flight of the men’s game – but because the match was played in the spirit of the game, with fair play and good humour all around. As opposed, say, to Wednesday night’s performance at Stamford Bridge.
I must admit, even though the ref had a bad day at the office, my sympathy for Chelsea is limited. They’ve won a few too many matches thanks to bad refereeing to start whining when they get the fuzzy end of the lollipop for a change. It was particularly funny to see the outrage from Didier Drogba, who’s a wonderfully talented player on his day, but has established a record for diving that would give Cristiano Ronaldo a run for his money. (On second thoughts, maybe that’s unfair to Ronaldo. It would take a Sherman tank to knock Drogba over, but he seems unable to stay upright in the penalty area.) Not to mention the officials having to get a police escort out of the game, with the crowd seemingly intent on proving the old clichés about football crowds correct. I am reminded just a bit of the Mancunian football supporters who follow Ricky Hatton around the world, or cricket’s Barmy Army, an awful lot of whom are Chelsea fans looking for some sport in the off season – not that these folks are particularly loutish or anything, more that any notion of the spirit of the game takes a poor second place to getting the right result.
And an honourable mention must go to the cock-eyed TV commentators, who were in such a state of synthetic outrage that they almost crossed the line into incitement to riot.
More to the point, this points up the sheer feebleness of the FA’s Respect campaign. It isn’t entirely useless, but in concentrating on the (very real) problem of kids’ matches being turned ugly by gobby dads on the touchline, there’s something of an elephant in the room that they’re missing. Namely, their unwillingness to upset the big clubs by insisting that the top of the game set an example.
If they were honest, they would admit that the Premier League, while being a fabulously rich league containing many of the world’s top players, has a less than sporting underside. We come back here to the famous philosophical clash between Revie’s win-at-all-costs approach and Clough’s belief that a win wasn’t worth having if it wasn’t an honest win. Sadly, lots of football fans, probably nowhere near a majority but certainly the most vocal section, are so partisan that they really don’t care how they win. If you ever watched Millwall play in the 1980s, you would recognise the mentality in an instant.
And actually, while the level of physical violence is infinitely lower than it used to be, there seems to be little let-up in the verbal violence. Abuse of the ref is one thing; another is racist or homophobic chanting directed at certain players, although grassroots campaigning has made some impact there over the years; yet another blot would be chants going up about Heysel or Munich. It’s something of a miracle that we don’t see riots in or around matches on a regular basis. It’s less surprising that Sky’s sound men have become adept at disguising crowd chants.
That’s the fans. Then, in the gobby dad role, you’ve got the managers, who, when they aren’t winding up the crowd, are blatantly trying to influence officials. On top of that, a persistently high level of cynicism amongst players, even – or perhaps particularly – the Premier League prima donnas, the most high-profile players, the most highly paid, those who have the greatest responsibility to the public. What price Ray Winstone trying to re-educate those gobby dads, when the kids’ heroes, from John Terry on down, are setting a bad example?
The only way that the culture would change is if the FA took strong action at the top of the game, and stuck by its actions whatever the pressure from the big clubs who dominate the FA’s board. It may not seem that way at first sight. The top players are on such grotesquely inflated salaries that cricket-style fines would hardly perturb them. That may change as the mountain of debt at the top of English football begins to bite in conditions of recession. But that’s not to say that nothing could be done in the interim.
You could, for instance, start next season with a blizzard of red cards. There would be howls of outrage from the clubs, but if the FA had the balls to stick it out for, say, six weeks, then you’d start to see changes. If you’re a Premier League manager and all of a sudden you find four or five of your top players sitting out suspensions, then it wouldn’t take long for heads to be banged together. Top up the sanctions with touchline bans for the gobbier managers, with the ultimate penalty of points deductions for clubs who won’t exercise some discipline over their personnel or fan base. The latter in particular would concentrate minds wonderfully.
It’s all hypothetical, of course. The FA’s track record of uselessness makes it unlikely in the extreme that they would do any such thing. Paradoxically, the most likely catalyst for change would be yet more bad behaviour on the European stage, prompting Uefa to step in and smack the FA about a bit. The internal dynamics of the English game militate against any such thing. Referees may be unhappy, and it’s proving very difficult to keep them in the game for any length of time, but there are too many vested interests, between players, managers, fans and proprietors, who are quite content with things the way they are.
No, it’s much easier to make ringing declarations about fair play, while refusing to give officials the support they would need to enforce some real discipline. And, if all else fails, run another one of those engaging ads with Ray Winstone. Don’t look at that – look at this!