by Karl Coppack

A few years ago the FA grew tired of the sniping and open criticism of referees and began a ‘Respect the Ref’ campaign. These savvy people knew exactly how to get the message across. They made a comic video, so comic that Howard Webb was in it. A vídeo imploring us to respect Howard Webb. You can’t get funnier than that. Barry from Eastenders was in it too. Arguably, he’d make a better official.

The campaign was an interesting one in as much as it was made public i.e. to the fans and amateurs as well as the professionals. If the campaign was designed to stop surrounding refs and shouting about decisions, cards etc why get us, the fans, involved? Surely a quiet word in the nation’s dressing rooms would do the job. At least that could have a modicum of success but, of course, they want the respect of the fans too and that’s practically impossible given the rabid support of today’s game. This is particularly confusing as every single referee will tell you that their decisions aren’t shaped by the supporters but by the laws of the game. It didn’t work in any case. The rule always remains the same. Shout at a bad ref, ignore a good one. That’s the way it is and always should be. What else do they want? At no stage last week did I hear the ground shout ‘Now, now let’s give the officials some credit here. It’s a difficult job given the circumstances so let’s have a little respect’. Likewise I didn’t see Moyes shrug his shoulders with a calm insouciance and a Gallic/Glaswegian grunt of disinterest. Instead he went for the jugular, took the media sympathy and etched the word ‘Atkinson’ next to ‘Collina’ and ‘Clattenburg’ in his special little book.
This isn’t a dig against the Bloos as such although there’s one coming. It’s just to point out the absolute arrogance of telling people to respect someone without giving a reason why other than ‘it’s a difficult job’. Respect is earned not sold. Atkinson did us a favour last week but I won’t be bounding down to his local and thrusting pints into his hand any time soon. I don’t especially like him because he gave us a decision. After all he let the Cahill-Fellani-Hibbert Attack Squadron go without punishment, possibly because he knew Rodwell’s red was a bit iffy, and our margin of victory could have increased had he sent them off. Indeed there was a feeling of distrust at half time as many suspected he’d book anyone in red in the second half to even things up a bit if he’d had a chance to see his error at half time. It would be very easy to do that given the stick he was getting around the ground and it’s been done by plenty of refs in the past.

Of course the ‘Respect the Ref’ campaign was paid the merest of lip service before Ferguson and others began kicking off again. How Ferguson can have the temerity to criticise any ref who hasn’t booked Scholes, United tackling equivalent of Lee Cattermole, is beyond me. How he can criticise a body of men whose top official is Howard Webb, practically his pet, is even more difficult to understand.

Managers like a moan, of course they do, and our own is no different. Kenny went for them after the Stoke game and he’d barely finished speaking before the press moved the focus from the validity of his argument to the usual ‘he’s cracking up’ etc hilarity that Rafa endured in January 2009. He’s been out of the game, y’know. Funnily enough, after Moyes’ tirade (equally justified in my view) Radio 5 strongly agreed with his criticism of the officials and practically begged their listeners to watch this ‘terrible, terrible decision on Match of the Day tonight’. Atkinson’s name was uttered before the score in subsequent news reports. To compound matters news of a major rick in the Wolves/Newcastle game changed the show’s agenda completely to ‘these appalling refs’ and what’s to be done with our beloved game. Of course you’d expect Kenny’s words to be brought up as evidence of a long standing problem but no. Presumably he’s still cracking up. Instead he was criticised for not agreeing with Moyes as such, claiming that he didn’t see it as the tackle was on the other side of the pitch with a forest of legs in between him and Suarez/Rodwell. I’ll repeat that. He didn’t disagree with Moyes and he didn’t defend Atkinson. He just offered no opinion I remember the abuse Tony Pulis got when we had two penalty decisions turned down at the Britannia and he didn’t condone or advocate Kenny’s views. No? Oh well.

Incidentally, you’ve got to love Evertonians blaming Suarez (fouled) and Lucas (pointing out that he’d been fouled) for the red card. Lovely that.

Kenny’s Stoke ire stemmed largely from the Richardson/Dowd incident when Phil Dowd turned down the most blatant sending off I’ve ever seen. The season was six minutes old before Richardson performed opening day hari-kari at the Annie Road end. So simple was the decision that our lads didn’t even protest until Lucas noticed the absence of a card. You know the rest. 1-1 against a team who should have been put on the back foot for 84 minutes. The nation shrugged their shoulders and moved on. The referee well and truly respected. Where was the outrage then?

Dowd’s got form here. He refereed the opening game v Spurs in Rafa’s final season with what can only be described as a surreal delivery with the strangest of decisions going both for and against us. At one stage even the direction of the most obvious throw-ins were given only on a Dowdian whim. We were bloody awful that day and so unfit that Eric Pickles was more mobile than our midfield so Dowd’s performance passed without comment but it still lives with a few of us headshakers in the stands. How can you respect a man who bends the rules to whatever happens to be in his mind at the time? ‘Bit early for a sending off, isn’t it?’ Still, it was good to see that we dusted ourselves off and got on with the rest of the Sunderland game rather than give up because the ref had made a mistake. We did that at Spurs instead.

The campaign is right in many ways and should be applauded. We’ll always need refs and there’s no fun if they’re an easy target to vilify but we need them to have cool heads and consistency rather than the hotheads and careerists we have today. You won’t believe me but in his early days Uriah Rennie made a great official. Then someone told him so. Suddenly the shorts got tighter, the hand gestures became over dramatic and an ego the size of Jupiter appeared. The players also need to respect them. Comparing them with rugby refs is a tired cliché but isn’t that the best option? During the Rugby World Cup it was good to hear them explaining their decisions. Much of it lost on me to be honest but it was refreshing to see the players asking why a decision had been made rather than telling them why they’re wrong and most of them trotted away with a ‘fair enough’ attitude even if they disagreed.

The solution seems pretty obvious. Yes, respect the referee but first give us something to respect. Practically every Premiership referee has a black mark against them these days. Today Andre Marriner was announced as the ref for the MU game. Last time he took the fixture he sent off Vidic and didn’t give Owen a penalty. Alex Ferguson naturally complained, stating that it was never a booking and Owen’s ‘pace’, equally Picklesesque these days, would have got him clear of Carragher’s challenge and onto an equaliser. See, it’s not just referees that are prone to lunacy.