As a youngster, players rarely take to the football field as themselves. When a child worships their footballing hero, it transcends the posters and figurines that adorn their bedrooms and inevitably finds its way onto the pitch. While everybody else sees little nine year old Johnny running around, dribbling past defenders and firing the ball past his equally diminutive opposing goalkeeper, in Johnny’s head, he is in fact Cristiano Ronaldo.
You would be hard pushed to find a professional footballer these days who doesn’t still burn a candle for the icon of their youth. It should be healthy to admire, constructive to study and fun pretending to be your hero but with a seemingly steady decline within the Premiership of respect towards officials by the games top players, is this still true?
Ashley Cole’s dangerous lunge on Tottenham’s Alan Hutton recently, was arguably worse than the challenge made by Birmingham’s Martin Taylor on Arsenal’s Eduardo that broke the Croatian’s leg. Although Hutton picked himself up after the boot of the Chelsea left back had made its mark on his calf, referee Mike Riley would have been well within his rights to issue a straight red to Cole.
The swarm of blue shirts that surrounded Riley seconds after he had blown for the foul was astonishing. England regulars including captain John Terry and Frank Lampard, surrounded the official clearly remonstrating his decision, not only to call a foul but to insinuate that Hutton had made a meal of the challenge.
Riley’s decision to leniently book Cole was then shamefully received by the player himself. Instead of dropping to his knees and kissing the ref’s boots for not throwing him off the pitch, he walked away from the official, visibly angry, swearing, shouting and when prompted to turn and face his punishment, merely jabbed a thumb at the name on his shirt in vindictive disdain. Riley was seen to mouth, “Ashley, show some respect”. A man not unaccustomed to the pouting of an adolescent schoolboy, Cole, should indeed be showing some respect. Any young player watching the game will have seen it and taken note. Mimicking the actions of a footballer is not after all confined to dribbling, shooting, and celebrating.
The question is - where does the burden of responsibility lie? Should football matches be treated like films; given a suitability rating, and a parental guidance necessary label. Should it be up to the parents to point out that what Cole and the many other misbehaved and disrespectful players did was wrong? Of course not. Only the players and to a lesser extent their managers can police their own on field attitudes.
Chelsea has already been fined three times this season for failing to control their players. Last season too, in another Tottenham encounter, Terry was sent off for dissent after a continual harassment of the referee Graham Poll, who filed a report to the FA after the game citing his feeling of intimidation. This is the England captain; the man who is meant to be the rock at the heart of the national team and the country’s ambitions.
Manchester United, lead by Roy Keane famously harangued Andy D’Urso to the point where the official backed all the way off the pitch confronted by a wall of angry red shirted men. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson did apologise for his sides actions but his own red nosed rants against referees are themselves a thing of legend - his most recent against Mark Clattenburg in United’s recent loss to Portsmouth in the FA Cup earlier this month.
These high profile men, professional men, family men, acting like petulant teenagers do not send out the right messages for the sport, regardless of the accuracy of the official’s decisions. They are in the public eye seven days a week and instead of taking the opportunity to be good role models, what we see is a ‘warts and all’ exposé of men with more money than morals and more immaturity than humility.
Consistency in the levels and ability of referees in the Premiership has always been under scrutiny but this is not at the crux of the problem. The ability to understand and appreciate the numerous decisions a referee has to make under pressure within 90 minutes of football should be an intrinsic part of a professional attitude. Given the passion of competition and high profile nature of the event, a player can be forgiven some transgressions in these situations but the chasing, surrounding and berating of men doing their own professional duty is not something to be looked up to.
With the amount of money that surrounds the game, hitting players and clubs in the wallet with fines for misconduct, is a laughable punishment. The only possible solutions to the lack of respect that players are showing are bans and in cases of persistent offenders, deducted points. The loss of points can make the difference between Champions League and Uefa Cup, Premiership status and relegation, and can even decide championships. In a results business with careers for players and managers on the line, this could make the difference on the pitch.
The FA plan to only allow club captain’s to approach and question a referee’s decision is a step in the right direction but again, the powers that be have got things all wrong. By introducing the policy into the lower leagues, including children’s Sunday league games by way of an experiment before it is applied to the Premiership has missed the point entirely about why respect towards officials is a problem. It is those at the top of the sport, whom people aspire to, who should be leading the way.
Premiership players are the one’s who should be setting the example that kids look for but with the way things are going, it will soon be likely that Cole, Terry and many others will be looking at little Johnny and thinking, “perhaps I should act like that”.