A self-styled dog of war is an unlikely ally for our beleaguered referees but Stuart Pearce declared yesterday that managers' post-match tirades against officials were not helping the Football Association's Respect campaign and that they should stop.
Pearce, the England Under-21 manager, was speaking with the words of his third club manager, Brian Clough, ringing in his ears. Clough forbade his players from remonstrating with referees and Pearce showed in his two years at Manchester City's helm that the message stood for managers, too, as far as he was concerned. Did Pearce find it difficult to "take a deep breath" as he believes other managers should do? "Not really," he said. "I've been brought up under Brian Clough to keep my mouth shut. All decisions are going to be balanced over a season. If you don't think refs are going to make any mistakes just look at your own performance as a player or manager and know you can't get decisions right all the time. The same things applies to them – it's physically impossible with the pace of the games nowadays."
But the most powerful case for managers to keep post-match criticisms between themselves and officials was provided by statistics provided during the FA Respect campaign event in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, at which Pearce was speaking. The Association reveals that 8,000 referees are currently quitting the game each year, many of them because they are not prepared to live and work with the abuse, and that 846 grassroots games were abandoned last year due to unacceptable behaviour from either players or fans. A third of games at all levels are subsequently currently taking place with no referee at all.
Such is the inclination of parents to criticise referees and hurl orders at their children that the FA yesterday announced it is providing 50 per cent grants to youth football clubs to erect physical barriers to create a greater distance between players and fans and make the game less pressurised. The FA's Respect manager Dermot Collins said the behaviour of professional managers was influencing the conduct of those, at grassroots level, who consider it acceptable to pressurise and abuse referees when decisions go against them.
Referee Howard Webb believes players' behaviour towards referees had improved and says he now holds great store by the brief conversations he has with captains before games. Diplomatic on the issue of managers' outbursts, he said: "There has to be a little switch in people's heads when they say 'OK, that's enough, I have to think about the image of the game'."
But for all Webb's efforts to appreciate the pressures of those inside the game, he clearly believes the step-change must come from those competing within it. "If something happens in the first minute which is clearly over and above management and can only be deemed worthy of a card, it is my job to deal with it that way, and I'm not going to lower my standards."