James Lawton: Any self-respecting manager would take responsibility for indiscipline of players

By abandoning self-control, Mascherano betrayed his team
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Something is missing from the all points bulletin demanding the football authorities tighten discipline as a matter of extreme urgency, so quickly, indeed, that the conduct of Ashley Cole and Javier Mascherano will for ever be seen as steps into the gutter.

Absent is proper recognition of the core of the problem. It is the culture of denial and self-interest of the managers and, by extension, their clubs. It is missing names on the charge sheets: names such as Avram Grant and Rafa Benitez.

It must be beyond doubt that a prime reason why Cole and Mascherano treat referees with such contempt is the certainty that they will pay no price where they live, where they draw their wages and where their careers are shaped and sustained.

From the moment he was booked in Sunday's game at Old Trafford, Maschereno directed a stream of obscenities at the referee Steve Bennett. Yet later his manager Benitez painted the picture of a confused player whose only crime was to ask a question of the referee. Cole's manager Grant lauded his player's apology issued through the club and described him as a "role model". But for whom but smart-arse street kids?

While it is all very well castigating Cole and Mascherano for their failures to behave not just as fabulously rewarded professionals but minimally well-ordered members of adult society, why are Grant and Benitez granted the status of innocent accessories after the fact, who, presumably, do not pick and groom their players and tell them how to play and how to behave?

Maybe it is because something as basic as the concept of individual and collective responsibility is so far gone it is in need of a search party.

Benitez is a man of considerable personal charm. Plainly, he has values that he applies to his own life and that of his family – but, unfortunately, they were a thousand miles away when he faced the world with his version of events at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Instead of apologising for the shocking behaviour of one of his players – and promising some immediate and significant disciplinary action – he spoke of the referee's "overreaction". In this he received the influential support of Sky Sport's senior football analyst Andy Gray, who blamed Bennett for "spoiling the match". Now it is true Bennett has a reputation for heavy-handedly standing on his dignity, and doing it faster than a chapel deacon, but this isn't the point. Most intelligent professionals have always seen referees as not keepers of the game's wisdom but problems to be negotiated in the heat of the action.

Mascherano displayed the negotiating skills of an inflamed warthog. It was evident, surely, from the back row of the stand that his eventual dismissal was a controversy waiting to happen. Benitez's wild gesturing as he rose from his seat, and the effort to restrain Mascherano, however resigned to failure, by Xabi Alonso, underlined the point before Bennett reached for a second yellow card.

In a well-ordered world you might have expected Benitez to have been at least as angry as he might have been if Mascherano, who had managed to play with his usual sharp edge while simultaneously submitting to a brainstorm, had made some monumental professional gaffe, say, needlessly handling the ball in his own penalty area or directing a back pass sweetly beyond the grasp of Pepe Reina. But for some reason the kind of aberration committed on this occasion is consigned to another category, in this case overreaction by officials.

It is absurdly unprofessional. A pro's most basic obligation is to keep his head under any kind of circumstances. By looking for trouble, for abandoning self-control to such an extent, Mascherano effectively betrayed his team. He obliged them to face an entire half with only 10 men against the reigning champions, who were already a goal ahead. But Benitez, at least publicly, directed his rage entirely towards the referee.

Unfortunately, modern football abounds with such moral acrobatics. Sir Alex Ferguson railed at the authorities when Eric Cantona was suspended for his kung fu attack on a Crystal Palace fan. It was the fan's fault. He also defended Rio Ferdinand against excessive official reaction when he failed to take a drugs test.

Arsène Wenger drew a veil over the facts when one of his players threw a piece of pizza at Ferguson – and he could not bring himself to criticise his players when they gathered like some unbridled street mob around Ruud van Nistelrooy when he missed a penalty. Understandably enough, there is now talk of docking points for the crime of "disrespect". Enforcement would obviously be a nightmare of vying claims and self-justifications. Still, there is a certain powerful logic in the proposal. It addresses the problem that not so long ago was dealt with by great managers as a matter of course.

Brian Clough set up his own scale of fines for failures of discipline in the dressing room. Sir Matt Busby had a famous phrase which he delivered with great scorn whenever one of his players crossed the line which defined correct professional behaviour. Once he delivered it when one of his players had been acting up on the training field. "That's not Manchester United," he said.

Doubtless it is relevant that in those days players were not earning in the region of £100,000 a week, a new saloon car represented a peak of luxury and, if they believed they had inherited the world, it was only because they got to play football for a living. Still, some things do not need to change. One is that referees should be able to do their work without receiving a non-stop barrage of obscene invective or, as Benitez might say, intense questioning.

However you rated his performance, it was clear that this was the fate of Steve Bennett. It was a fact confirmed by the most rudimentary lip-reading skills, which also gave us the critique of Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard, who told the referee: "You're taking the fucking piss."

Who precisely is doing that to whom is now perhaps the key question. There should not, however, be too much doubt about where the interrogation should begin. It is in the offices of the managers who make the excuses because they see no wrong.

Even with defeat staring him in face, beauty remains undiminished in eyes of all who behold Wenger's work

Stubborn in his bruised pride, even despair, Arsène Wenger now has to endure a soul-destroying aspect of Arsenal's implosion in the Premier League title race. He has to suffer the flagellation of faint praise, the condescension the English do so well.

All of it will be compressed into the most hateful of all phrases to besiege the ears of those who have given life to the dream that not only can they win a great prize, they can do it entirely on their own terms. The most lacerating barb: we told you so.

We told you that your precocious talent had been spread too thin. We told you that only so much pressure could be applied to the vulnerable pscyhe of William Gallas. We told you that if Cesc Fabregas was the most thrilling kid on the football block, he was still a kid and that sooner or later the burden he carried would be too great. We told you that you should have shelved some of your pride and done what Avram Grant, who is not quite such an object of abuse today, did when he laid in the insurance provided by Nicolas Anelka, one of the supreme examples of your genius for catching the highest talent in embryo form.

Of course we couldn't tell you that you would lose Eduardo da Silva so sickeningly at such a crucial stage of the race or that Robin van Persie would be out for so long or that Tomas Rosicky would be lost from a brilliantly creative but ultimately overstretched midfield. But these things happen, unfortunately, and there is only one effective counter: the kind of squad strength that Manchester United and Chelsea are bringing to bear on the last lap.

However, it is maybe still worth saying that not too many told you that indeed you could be the light of the season, that even now, when the odds are piled so heavily against a winning conclusion, some of the best memories of an intriguing battle will be of your team setting a breath-taking standard for the purest football.

At a moment of defeat, you did say that maybe there was one ultimate goal. It was to make the game beautiful. That was something you told us and, whatever happens in the next few weeks, you were 100 per cent right.

Comments