You mug! You slag! You muppet!

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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!

13 Comments

  1. skidmarx said,

    May 12, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    There was a blizzard of red cards a couple of seasons ago which seems to have stopped two footed lunges from being a common feature of the game.

    Support for general action on discipline in problematic when there seems to be such a disparity in the way some clubs are treated:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/arsenal-victims-of-a-conspiracy-claims-wenger-790052.html

    Perhaps the second round of death threats against a referee lend some support to Richard Williams’ argument in today’s Guardian that Chelsea should be banned from the Champions League:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2009/may/12/chelsea-tom-ovrebo-champions-league

    “another blot would be chants going up about Heysel or Munich.” And that’s a problem because…?

  2. D.B. said,

    May 13, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Bang on, top post. The likes of Ferguson, Wenger and other managers actually instill disrespect into their sides, as part of their strategy. The whole football power structure is complicit. Without wanting to sound too my like my grandad, I would quite literally send them all off if they gave me any shit.

    Just one thing I disagree on:

    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.

    I think the vast majority of genuine football fans want football that yields results, and understandably so. Despite the propaganda peddled by Sky for nearly 2 decades, most true fans understand that football is a sport (and their teams are their lifeblood), not “show business”. It’s about putting the ball in the back of the net innit. I’d rather win 1-0 every week than get beat 4-3 and be regaled by free-flowing but ultimately pointless attacking football. GET STUCK IN!! etc

  3. May 13, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    That’s right DB, about fans and managers – too many Revies and not enough Cloughs. It seems to be viewed as good management to create a sort of siege mentality, blaming referees, the FA etc. for defeats and setbacks, with unconditional defence of players no matter what they do.

    Honourable exceptions seem to be decent types like Shearer (over Barton), Zola, Moyes and O’Neill, and an honourable mention to Phil Brown for his public berating of his underperforming team.

    I have discussed something similar on my most recent post on my blog, my answer in short is socialism or non league football (or both would be better!)

  4. skidmarx said,

    May 13, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    D.B. – got any evidence to support your first point in relation to Wenger?

  5. Neil said,

    May 13, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Oh come on Skidmarx Wenger invented the phrase “I didn’t see it” to excuse some of the nasty behaviour of Arsenal players (esp Patrick Viera, a real bully imo despite his talents as a player)

  6. Garibaldy said,

    May 13, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Anyone who let themselves be bullied by Viera deserved it. Funniest thing ever to see him visibly wilt in the face of an enraged Roy Keane.

    As for Wenger. Arsenal had a terrible disciplinary record under him for years. Nevermind pizza being chucked etc. Of course he at the least tolerated if not encouraged it.

  7. skidmarx said,

    May 15, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Nei- isn’t it possible that Wenger said he didn’t see it because he didn’t see it? No wonder that he told told Gabby Logan that nobody believes him when he’s telling the truth.

    Garibaldy – good first point. Keane should be in jail for his attack on Alf Inge Haarland.
    Arsenal’s disciplinary record has improved leaps and bounds, correlating with the decline in English players in the side. I believe the team won a UEFA fair play award a couple of seasons ago, despite the way referees disproportionately punish them.

  8. Omar Little said,

    May 15, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Nothing makes people talk more bollix than football (even politics). If Keane should be in jail, then so should at least 100 other footballers from the last four decades including Johnny Giles, Tommy Smith, Brian Kilcline, Julian Dicks (paricularly bad foul on Nicky Butt in 1996 I remember) St. George Best, St. Michael Owen (for clobbering Ronnie Johnson in 1998)…see how this could go on?
    Wenger could always see fouls on, and decisions going against, his own players. He developed managerial blindness when his lot were doing the fouling and cheating. Viera was a dirty fucker.
    But Wegner is also an excellent manager and Arsenal have been outstanding at times over the last decade.
    No successful manager is a saint; neither Busby, Shankley, Paisley, Revie (!) or any other fucker, including Cloughie the bung merchant were above cheating.
    And there is no point trying to bring socialism into this; I seen shop stewards who organised collections for Liverpool city council workers chanting ‘you scouse bastards’ at football matches.

  9. prianikoff said,

    May 15, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    With regard to the failings of the Premiership, or the closely related Champions League, “Fair play” is NOT the main issue .

    “Get your retaliation in first when the ref isn’t looking” has always been part of the professional game. While increased live TV coverage has probably encouraged the histrionic divers like Drogba, TV replays are also exposing the poor standard of refereeing. The lousy decision against Darren Fletcher, which deprived him of a place in the final, being just the latest example.

    Surely at this level, what’s needed is the right to appeal against ref’s decisions using video evidence? Much as line decisions are adjudicated at Wimbledon.

    That said, the main problem with the Premiership is its lack of real competition and big money domination. The Champions League qualifying positions are regularly occupied by Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.
    It’s becoming as boringly predictable as Rangers and Celtic’s domination of Scottish football.

    Teams like Man Utd use their big chequebooks to acquire squads bloated with underused talent and sabotage the chances of their Premiership rivals;
    Very few kids now graduate from apprenticehip schemes into regular careers in Premiership teams.

    There is a point of bringing socialism into it, because a growing number of supporters are deserting the Premiership sides and even calling for its nationalisation! See for example, the piece by Steven Wells in the Guardian Sports Blog of May 14th, “Why it is time to nationalise the Premier League”.

  10. skidmarx said,

    May 16, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Omar – you have the shotgun, Wenger has the briefcase. He said a couple of times that he didn’t get a good view of an incident, maybe that’s the truth.
    He did describe himself as “just an employee” once, which would suggest he’s on the right side of the class divide. The questions of what to do about money and the Premier League are complex, but Wenger has managed to compete with his rivals without spending the same sort of money, and getting young players of varying nationality to play wonderful football. Certainly you point about Liverpool supports my questioning of what the problem with Heysel or Munich chants is. I did wonder why Liverpool whined so much about the possibility of having to play on the Hillsborough anniversary when the filled the news for the day going on about it anyway.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 16, 2009 at 11:22 am

    What winds me up about Liverpool fans, at least those who phone TalkSport, is that there’s a big section of them who seem determined to live up to the image of the chippy Scouser who believes the whole of the rest of England is a giant conspiracy to do Liverpool down.

    Well, that and the Leeds fans who think they’re too good for League One… hats off to Millwall, and it’s not often I say that.

  12. May 16, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    “hats off to Millwall, and it’s not often I say that.”

    Indeed, and hats off to Scunthorpe for stopping Franchise last night.

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 17, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    I agree. What’s more, perhaps the Leeds management will think again about charging Premier League prices for League One football.

    And talking of Franchise, nice to see AFC Wimbledon getting promoted to the Conference. It’s enough to warm the heart of anyone who enjoyed watching the Crazy Gang back in the day.


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