It is time to get tough with players – and staff – who abuse referees. I propose that the FA and, subsequently FIFA, implement a zero tolerance policy towards those who disrespect officials. I suggest any act of abuse be met with a straight red card and a one-match ban. If there is a re-offence, then a two-match ban would follow, then a four-match ban and so on. I am pretty confident that such a stance would quickly stamp out a problem that has become the biggest blot on the landscape of British football. The sight of players, and often managers and coaches on the touchline, challenging, berating and frequently foul-mouthing referees has become the disgraceful norm in recent years. In short, it is a disgrace and an embarrassment.
This disturbing lack of respect for officialdom is, you could argue, not just a football problem but also a societal disease, something that has developed, seemingly unchecked, over the past 30 or so years. The problem must start in the home, where parents have a responsibility to teach their kids the importance of recognising and respecting those in authority. It also befalls football coaches, from junior through to the pinnacle of the professional game, to bang the same drum when it comes to accepting referees’ decisions without question or dissent. The argument goes, especially at the highest level of the game, that the pressure on managers and players is such that they are entitled to dispute decisions they don’t agree with. But that simply won’t wash.
I watched the British Lions and Australia, hard men all and some of them man mountains, batter the hell out of each other in 80 minutes of pure attrition in their rugby union test match last Saturday. Throughout the fearsome, tension-packed contest there were numerous refereeing decisions and penalties awarded. There was also not a single word of dissent from these magnificent, often bruised and blood-spattered combatants. Seventeen-stone giants were summoned to stand before the official, like schoolboys brought to the front of the classroom, and had the reason for their punishment explained, followed by a warning that worse would follow if they re-offended. To a mountainous man, they listened politely before returning to the ranks. I was so impressed. If they can behave so impeccably when faced with decisions they may not like, why can’t footballers? I’ve heard it said that rugby union is a middle class game and, therefore, that it mirrors middle class standards. That arguments collapses when you consider the heroes of Super League rugby, the game’s 13-man-a-side code and the working-class version, who play just as fiercely and who accept the referee’s word just as respectfully.
Football managers and players in the glaring spotlight of the money-drenched Premier League are under a lot of pressure to retain their top-flight status. And the pressure on players and managers to get into the Premier League, with all its financial rewards, is also immense. It is a situation that produces intolerance of refereeing mistakes – but it is no excuse for it. Quite simply, referees have the toughest job in football. They are men doing a job most people would run away from and they deserve the respect of players and managers. Sure, mistakes are made. But human beings make mistakes, especially when they are making decisions in a split-second and when confronted with the disgraceful diving antics that blight our game. I wasn’t whiter than white in my career. As a cocky Everton youngster I once had the temerity to tell referee Graham Hill I thought he was having a bad game. But I didn’t swear at him. He told me I wasn’t doing too well, either! And when, as Everton manager, I went to David Elleray’s dressing-room to dispute his sending off of Duncan Ferguson in the last minute for foul and abusive language, I was summoned before an FA disciplinary hearing and I wrote a letter of apology to Elleray. They were rare moments of indiscipline on my part and I believe that no team I managed had a reputation for lack of respect for the officials.
Too often nowadays our TV screens are filled with images of players confronting officials and staff ranting on the touchline. It is getting out of control, it is setting a bad example to young people – and it has to stop. Managers must lead by example and players must respond. The late, great Brian Clough proved you can be a winner and still respect the referee. He never criticised the officials and his players knew it would be the worse for them if they did so. With that philosophy, Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest twice won the European Cup! In other words, to use the pressure as a reason for challenging decisions is an argument that does not hold water. Instead, footballers should take a leaf out of those rugby players’ books. If players and managers continue to be abusive to the men in black, then punishment must be instant – and severe. The FA launched their “Respect” campaign several years ago and little has changed. It is time to get tough.