Nobody wants to admit it but referee abuse works

Nobody wants to admit it but referee abuse works

Jose Mourinho Manager of Manchester United speaks with Referee Michael Oliver at the end of The Emirates FA Cup Quarter-Final match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on March 13, 2017 in London © Eurosport

Amidst all the fall-out from the acrimonious Manchester derby with Manchester United in December, The Football Association’s request that Jose Mourinho explain his pre-match comments about referee Michael Oliver, passed largely without comment, swamped as it was by the post-match fracas that followed City’s 2-1 win.

Mourinho had used the build-up to the derby clash at Old Trafford to remind Oliver to clamp down on what Mourinho perceives to be Manchester City’s deliberate “tactical fouling”.

I know, yes, yes,” Mourinho had said when City’s reputed tactic of strategic fouling was suggested to him. “I know. It is a strategy that they have. They put lots of people in attacking areas. They attack with a lot of players.

When they lose the ball, they are many times unbalanced in numbers, they have lots of people surrounding the ball area and they have a very strong – and this is a great quality – transition in the next few seconds after they lose the ball.

And many times, they need what is called a tactical foul and then it is up to the referee to analyse and to make a decision about it but I cannot speak about that.”

Managers are not allowed to discuss referees or apply any undue influence over officials but on the face of it Mourinho’s consistent surfing of the grey areas between fair comment, lost in translation ‘heightened emotions’ and naked propaganda means he can always have an answer ready for every charge levelled against him.

And it is a ‘talent’ he has employed throughout his career – and instilled in his players. Mourinho’s men all sing from the master’s hymn sheet.

The systematic undermining of referees has been a consistent theme of Mourinho’s career.

From his players play acting against Celtic as his Porto side triumphed in The UEFA Cup Final of 2003, to the premature retirement of ref Anders Frisk in 2005 that led to Mourinho’s portrayal as ‘an enemy of football’ by UEFA’s chief referee, Volker Roth, the greatest hits just keep on coming.

United were shorn of the presence of their controversial Portuguese manager following a one game touchline ban for kicking a water bottle in frustration. The referee John Moss had awarded his £89-million-pound record signing Paul Pogba a yellow card for simulation.

Mourinho was also sent to the stands, fined £50,000 and given a one match stadium ban folllowing a game at West Ham last season when he disputed a decision made by the same John Moss.

The browbeating of ref Michael Oliver following the 2-1 Manchester Derby defeat for United in December, was according to the World Soccer columnist Jim Holden, a classic move from the Premier League management playbook and an object lesson in ref abuse as a form of deflection.

Writing in The Express, Holden said: “Jose Mourinho did what so many craven football managers are eager to do – he disowned responsibility and blamed the referee for his team’s defeat.”

There is a broad-based assumption that no-one is fooled by the pantomime villainy perpetrated by Mourinho and his ilk at the top of the game. And not least within the referees’ fraternity. Yet common-sense tells us that this simply cannot be the case. Not least because the obstreperous behaviour is so consistent, so predictable. It must be having some sort of return on investment.

There’s an old joke that the ex-US referee Jim Gordon likes to quote:
Q: “What’s the difference between a referee and a terrorist?”
A: “You can negotiate (and maybe change the mind) of a terrorist.

The implication of the punchline is clear and it is a funny one. But I am not sure I wholly go along with the logic.

After all, if arguing didn’t serve a purpose, players and staff on the bench would have given it up long ago. Especially so if the sanction for moaning and abuse was perceived to be greater than any potential upside.

The fact is, whether legitimate or not, arguing is a tactic that players and coaches and teams employ. Constantly. Systematically.
From the ref’s perspective, when a player or manager argues with an official, the player is basing his position on a belief that the ref has either called the decision incorrectly or simply doesn’t know how to apply the laws of the game. In extreme cases the motivation may be an aggrieved sense that the ref is lying or cheating.

A ref for their part seeks safety in numbers and solace in repetition.

If they have repeatedly passed the regular rules test and have clocked up the hours successfully reffing games then they can point to real evidence of their competency.

As a rule of thumb, referees will generally amass about ten times the game-time experience that players do, as a function of greater opportunity and a career that stretches well beyond their mid thirties. So it stands to reason that all parties know what’s going on, and recognise when those on the field or in the dug-out are attempting to exert an undermining influence on the ref, either for immediate or subsequent gain.

Law 12 says: Dissent, disagreeing with the referee’s decision by word or deed, is required to be cautioned. Abuse, negative characterisation of an opponent or referee, must be sanctioned by showing the red card and sending the person off (and/or away from the field.)

Ander Herrera reacting to his second yellow card in the December 2017 Manchester Derby © Sky Sports

The reason for this is that upholding the referee’s integrity and independence is paramount. Without these two essential and precious assets, the officials have nothing. They lose all credibility.

And here is the nub of things: a referee who lets a player or coach, or crowd argue him into changing a decision is inviting anarchy by simultaneously showing both benches, the players, and everyone watching, that the game is no longer being refereed by an impartial referee who is in charge of his mind and emotions and making his own decisions.

The official line will always be that dissent does not change a referee’s mind but most players will say that arguing can have an incremental impact, promoting doubt or shaping subsequent perception.

Back in 2014 Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed that he would specifically point at his watch to influence match officials and opponents despite rarely being aware of how many actual minutes remained in a match for his Manchester United side to find a goal.

Fergie’s United were renowned for winning points in the depths of injury time and the Scot’s trademark timekeeping tactic became widely referred to as ‘Fergie Time’.

Speaking on BT Sport’s Clare Balding Meets, Ferguson said: ‘Absolutely (other team’s were frightened of it). That’s why I used to go with my watch. But I never looked at my watch. Honestly. I didn’t know how many minutes but it gets across to the opponents and the referee. It was just a little trick.’

And Jose Mourinho’s various sides, Don Revie’s Leeds United and the famous Arsenal back four of Adams et al that served George Graham and then Arsene Wenger so well, were equally notorious for pressurising referees.

Look deeper, in fact, and it is hard to find a champion side that hasn’t tried to bend things their way with the aid of the dark arts of dissent.

And here of course, is the primary motivation for protests. They may (or may not) influence a game’s events but protests of disputed decisions can be used to frame the narrative of how a game is discussed and described after the final whistle, in the press conference, on TV and in the papers, and amongst the fans down the pub or on online forums.

A sense of seething injustice either real or manufactured can be a fabulous asset for a side seeking the unity of a common sense of purpose. Or to shift the blame for a poor performance.

Where there is a premeditated and longer term objective to dissent then it is this: to try and undermine the referee so that he favours a particular outcome in future decisions, perhaps even in future games later in the season.

And of course, dissenting players also hope to positively influence the crowd either to emphasise their commitment to the cause or to slyly curry favour with fans – especially if it is late in a game where they know they have played poorly and want to deflect blame.

In a tense, poised game the players might also be actively trying to inspire the crowd to up the atmosphere and get behind the team. A disputed decision, a moment of controversy can be the greatest of motivators, uniting fans and players to a common cause against the clock.

The most common cause of dissent though is likely just emotions boiling over. Football is a passionate game and winning means everything to its greatest competitors on the field of play.

Viewed in the round, it is easy to see that there are clear reasons why players and staff protest to referees.The trick though, is to learn to distinguish between everyday dissent and the kind of black arts behaviour that comes with a subtle (or not so subtle), agenda.