For what it’s worth, I think that referee Howard Webb got both decisions spot on during the FA Cup game between Manchester United and
Liverpool on Saturday. Firstly, Daniel Agger did not need to attempt the tackle in that position as Berbatov was heading towards the touchline. At the very worst he would have conceded a corner had he stayed on his feet. Secondly, Gerrard’s tackle was off the ground and by the letter of the law that warrants a red card. Whether the tackle was a dangerous one or not isn’t really here nor there. The fact is that those “off the ground” tackles are the ones that DO cause the serious injuries and they are the ones that the FA is (rightfully) trying to stamp out of the game.
The point of the title was to highlight the lack of respect shown to officials by players, particularly at the elite level. Whilst I am not of the opinion that footballers should be role models in their personal lives, I do feel quite strongly that players should respect the officials of the game. Especially considering the “Respect” campaign is something that is being pushed hard at a grass roots level; at an amateur game this weekend I saw a free kick being given for use of foul and abusive language. This was not aimed at a referee; it was simply said in frustration. It is pretty shocking what professionals can get away with. There were numerous examples in the Manchester United vs.
Liverpool game. When Gerrard made his tackle that eventually earned him an early bath, all the players surrounded Howard Webb. He motioned and said for them to go away whilst walking backwards and still they followed. There were further instances when throws were given near the corner flag, resulting in the referee’s assistant to be abused by Maxi Rodriguez and later Patrice Evra.
This abuse and blatant lack of respect is something that needs to be cut from the game. It is all very well promoting these campaigns at grass roots level but the young players all watch the big games and this behaviour is viewed my millions as going unpunished and therefore as being acceptable. In my mind this is quite an easy one to solve. You either provide a carrot or a stick. Due to the vast sums that the players earn (whether that is right or wrong is a debate for another day), I very much doubt if there is a carrot big enough to provide an incentive to get the players to stop abusing officials. That leaves the stick. Hand each player a warning over the first instance of foul language or verbal abuse and then every time after that dish out a yellow card. If a player does it twice in a game he will get sent off. Then see how quickly he does it again after coming back from his suspension. Andy Townsend ridiculously suggested on the FA Cup highlights last night that sending off everyone who committed a tackle like Gerrard’s would “see most games ending up as 9 vs. 8”. This is simply untrue. Whilst I accept that there would be a couple of weeks of chaos where players toe the line and lots of red cards are given, players will very quickly get the message and the language and abuse will stop.
Harsh action is the only thing that will have any effect. Sewing a “Respect” badge onto a players’ sleeve does nothing, sending him off does. This zero tolerance is something that should be learned from rugby, a game where losing a player from a side has an even bigger influence on the balance of the game than in football, yet any outbursts towards referees are immediately punished. This black and white approach would not only clear up all these ambiguous debates that call into question either a referee's ability (in making the right decision) or a player's integrity (if he set out to use excessive force to injure a player) but it will also begin to install some positive behaviours into the game that will start to trickle down towards the grass roots level, rather than the heavily flawed plan to introduce the changes at the grass roots level. If the changes aren't going to be enforced at the elite level, what chance do the amateurs and youths have?