Sir Alex Ferguson has never been the most gracious of losers. Often the way with the very best managers—Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger share the same trait—his winning mentality makes losing unfathomable and forces him to confront his own weaknesses. Except, in Ferguson’s case it doesn't—at least not publicly.
The fallout from Tuesday night’s damaging defeat at Stamford Bridge saw the Manchester United boss revert to a familiar tactic, apportioning blame for the 2-1 loss to the referee, in this case Martin Atkinson.
Of all the ills in the modern game, the scapegoating of officials is the most tedious. While perhaps not as damaging as bungling administrators and ruthless tackles, it is certainly more tiresome. And it is expressed by all stakeholders in the game: from fans to players and from managers to the media.
The psychology behind this attitude is known as attribution theory. In sport, it suggests that competitors will ascribe successful endeavours to internal, stable factors (such as their ability to perform) and blame a lack of success on external, unstable factors (i.e. luck or chance). The performance of the referee is the latter.
Ferguson’s main gripe from Tuesday was the awarding of a penalty for Chris Smalling’s foul on Yuri Zhirkov. Although Zhirkov went down easy, there was contact and it was foolish of Smalling to give the referee a decision to make. However, Smalling bore no public condemnation from Ferguson for his part in it. Instead, Ferguson made it clear that he felt the major influence on the game was Atkinson.
Did Martin Atkinson cost Manchester United the game?
The claim will be that Ferguson is protecting his player, but is this really an acceptable defence of his actions? If your child is punished at school by a teacher and you criticise that teacher’s integrity and competence to the national media, then you would be likely to face legal action for such slander. The situations are not dissimilar, with Ferguson rightly facing an FA charge for his comments.
Taking this approach is also rarely conducive to the development and learning of players, as it removes the need for introspection. Ferguson is a great manager and, doubtless, he would have privately warned Smalling that taking a heavy touch when dribbling the ball out of the penalty box under pressure, then making a clumsy attempt to rectify your error, is not a wise move in such a vital game. But public criticism would send an even stronger message to the player that such casual play is unacceptable for the Champions-elect.
However, it is not really the players that the managers are trying to protect. The condemnation of officials is just shameless self-preservation.
A major part of the manager’s job is to attempt to control for unstable factors. Football, more than most sports, is subject to chance occurrences during the game. Even the rules are largely subjective and open to interpretation (the penalty could easily have gone either way) and to bemoan this is naive in the extreme.
If you score only one goal, then you have failed to exercise this control. You could implement your defensive strategy flawlessly for 89 minutes but still fall victim to a wonder goal, a freak deflection or, as was the case on Tuesday, an individual error. It would be foolish to gamble on these not happening. In any game, the referee’s performance is one such factor and should be treated no differently.
Ferguson, it should be said, however, is certainly not the only one. In the modern game, with the stakes so high and dismissal only ever a few games away, nearly all managers use the referee as an excuse. An even more absurd example was Walter Smith’s laughable reaction to his Rangers side having two players sent off in the Old Firm derby against Celtic on Wednesday.
Smith criticised referee Calum Murray for sending off Steven Whitaker and Madjid Bougherra (both for two bookable offences), when three reds could have been awarded for the four incidents on another day.
The actions of Smith’s players left Murray with the choice either to ignore dangerous play and let the match spiral out of control, or to make clear that wild challenges were not going to be tolerated. Increasingly, it seems, managers and players want to have it both ways.
They complain of late decisions, yet go berserk when advantage is not applied. They hammer referees for not “letting the game flow,” then moan about a lack of protection when a player gets injured. They ramp up the pressure on officials pre-match, then level accusations of bias and incompetence afterwards.
Rarely does a referee determine the result of a match. If he gives an incorrect decision the players have the rest of the game to correct it (or the preceding time if the mistake is late on). If a team relies on one moment to win a game, then the major issue is their own failure.
Only when a series of major decisions go against a team, as happened to Chelsea in their 2009 Champions League Semi-Final Second Leg against Barcelona, does the referee’s performance become the definitive factor.
On Tuesday, when leaving David Luiz unmarked for the equaliser, then Smalling’s misguided tackle, United were the architects of their own downfall.
The toothless leadership at the FA ensures that attempts to confront the problem, such as the astonishingly ineffective Respect Campaign, are doomed to failure. Match officials should not be beyond reproach, but this should come from the correct, official sources. Otherwise the selfish, inaccurate and undignified comments of managers will continue to be a bigger story than the games themselves.