Friday, 11 April 2008

A matter of respect

First published in The Grecian, 29 March 2008, Exeter City -v- Halifax Town

Good on Barnet manager and England C national football team coach Paul Fairclough. His decision voluntarily to adopt a code whereby only his Club captain, Brian Harrison, is authorised to speak to the officials when there is an on-pitch dispute about a refereeing decision is already paying dividends.

In fact, it is improving things in two directions. First, it is taking the heat off both officials and players in the midst of controversy. Second, according to Harrison, it is giving a new sense of dignity and self-belief to the Barnet players. Not everything is easily resolved, but as matter of feeling positive about fairness and respect within the game, everybody wins.

Next month the Premier League has a meeting with the Football Association to discuss player reactions to referees and disciple on the pitch. Both these bodies have an important role to play in improving things for football as a whole, and that includes the likes of Exeter City and the Blue Square Premier.

Why? Because what happens at the highest levels has a huge impact on young players and fans lower down the system. Officials will tell you that the verbal response they get from players often mentions and reflects actions and reactions in the Premiership.

It’s easy to be cynical about the whole ‘respect’ agenda, and from a number of angles. Grecians fans will no doubt say that standards of refereeing at our level are not good enough, and that they and their players are often justified in ‘having a go’. I disagree.

Yes, the decisions I witness week by week are sometimes questionable and (more to the point) inconsistent. I say that as someone who is not constitutionally inclined just to side with my team when there is controversy or disagreement. Fairness is important to me, as to others on the terraces. But the key point is that standards do not rise when players hector and bully, fans shout abuse, and referees and assistants (who do the job for love and a pittance remember) feel themselves to be in an atmosphere of constant threat and criticism.

We need to take a highest common factor approach based on support as well as scrutiny, not opt for a lowest common denominator “you don’t know what your doing” ethos. It’s in everybody’s interest that things on and off the pitch improve.

The FA bears a great deal of responsibility here. There is a strong argument that referees at the highest level are not getting the kind of backing they need, and that they in turn are sometimes lacking the courage of their convictions when it comes to stamping down hard (if I may use that phrase!) on bad fouls and unacceptable behaviour by some of the game’s household names.

A good example would be Ashley Cole’s lunge at Alan Hutton in the riveting Chelsea-Spurs 4-4 goal fest a couple of weeks back. Almost everyone was agreed that this should have been a ‘straight red’, even a friend of mine who backs the Blues. Cole subsequently apologised for his behaviour and his response.

But according to Graham Poll, who was famously surrounded by eight Chelsea players when he produced a yellow in November 2006, refs are nervous because they are not backed up. This incident produced no action against the Club, because, incredibly, the FA told Poll that he “didn’t look intimidated”. What was he supposed to do, cry?

Leadership on the issue of cleaning up the game and concentrating on the football has to come from the top. We can all play a role however. That includes Grecians fans.


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