Managers are getting in more and more trouble for post match comments. In some cases rightly so. Questioning the impartiality or integrity of a referee is clearly not acceptable. Questioning a decision and the competency of an official after an incredibly poor decision falls under what Sir Alex Ferguson would call “fair comment”. Except, that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the way that the FA see it. The indications are that criticism of referees is disrespectful.
This, to me is wrong. As a Manchester United fan I obviously have a massive amount of respect for the manager, one of the defining reasons for our success, but do I think he’s right in every decision that he makes? Is it disrespectful for me to question one of his decisions?
Personally I think the main problem in the situation is the way that managers are interviewed. Now in some cases managers make premeditated statements to the press before a game in an attempt to psychologically influence a referee. This is something I’d like to see stopped. But when a manager is interviewed straight after a game as part of their obligations to the media, they are basically being asked what they think about a controversial decision minutes after an emotional rollercoaster that decides their employment future and the success of their team. It’s hard to imagine them taking a controversial decision well. I know that if I had to field questions from Garth Crooks I’d be heading for a secure room in the specially designed Balotelli wing at Strangeways.
These aren’t people who applied for their job on the basis of a career in TV. These are people whose expertise is football management. Of course the TV companies, who basically pay the bills, have every right to expect an interview. But do they want a heat of the moment outburst, lasting two minutes because the manager wants to get the hell out of there, and which then results in touch-line bans and token slaps on the wrist? Or would they like to have an agreement where the manager sits down later on, for a proper interview to discuss the real talking points of the game, why they made certain selections, what tactical considerations went into the game, why they changed things the way they did and if those changes had the expected impacts. Football fans in this country pay more than any other for the privelidge of watching their team, both at the match stadiums and also on TV, so for that money maybe they are entitled to a little transparency, a chance to see their manager’s brains picked about how the game unfolded. Maybe that could lead to a new era of tactical understanding in this country. Fans growing up aware that formations matter. That some players are better suited to certain situations than others, even if they aren’t as fast or as strong. It’s idealistic, but why not?
This way of doing things wouldn’t be so reactionary, but it would certainly improve the quality of understanding, and the depth of coverage that Sky, ESPN, ITV and the BBC provide. Those of us slating the simplistic punditry would have our thirst for tactical discussion and insight quenched, and those who aren’t that bothered can simply rely on Jamie Redknapp to say “that was a shocking, shocking decision to be fair” or “Frank’s done well there, I think there’s contact, you’ve got to hand it to the ref, that was a top, top decision”. Because Jamie Redknapp has seen the replay. The manager hasn’t. For once, he’s probably the best qualified to comment on it.
The problem at the moment is that managers are expected to give a considered, reflective response to questions about controversial issues, before they’ve had time to reflect or consider the issues. I have no doubt that some of the things said in the heat of the moment are later on regretted, because managers understand that referees do a difficult job. Sir Alex Ferguson himself has said that he wouldn’t want to do the job. I think that given a few hours to cool down, consider the season as a whole, the way that decisions have gone for your team, and against them, and then take into account the fact that the referee has made the decision that he believes is correct then a manager is going to be annoyed, but he’s less likely to lash out. He may point out that the decision is incorrect, that the referees deserve to be given the tools to do their job to the best of their abilities. Tools that other sports already have. Things like technology. Because football isn’t played with jumpers for goal posts at the top level. It’s a multi billion £ industry and yet it lags behind Tennis, Cricket and Rugby to name but 3 when it comes to providing officials with the necessary help.
Until Blatter is ousted, or has the decency to go, then the problem of technology may never be addressed properly. But if it can’t, and referees continue to be human, and fallible, then perhaps managers need to be given chance to lower their blood pressure before saying something they regret. Because the alternative is that they can resort to answering every question “no comment”, leaving post match interviews to the club press officer – who has had media training, or even worse they could just sarcastically answer “Ohh yes, I thought the referee was fantastic today. I fully respect him, his linesmen, the fourth official and especially the FA”. That would end up making a mockery of the situation, because the thing is the officials really are doing a decent job, for very little appreciation. The best they can usually hope for is abuse. I hope we don’t ever have a manager charged by the FA for sarcasm, because a £50,000 fine for your tone of voice is quite simply ridiculous.