The Last Word: Imagine if footballers had to play by rugby's rules for just one weekend...
This indiscipline at QPR apparently extends to a lack of leadership
With referees, it's a chicken-and-egg thing. The egg, unmistakably, might be represented by the oval ball, and the total authority enjoyed by those who supervise even the most bloodthirsty competition for its possession; the chicken, in turn, by those too frightened to enforce a similar culture in football. But that's your problem, right there. More or less by definition, a "culture" cannot be "enforced". It has to develop organically. It is, in other words, a chicken-and-egg thing.
One should always hesitate before reprising too tritely the contrasts in rugby that prompt such distaste for football. The privacy of the scrum, after all, accommodates too many primordial transgressions for anyone to pretend that rugby players uniformly conduct themselves like "gentlemen". But the bottom line is that rugby referees, and players in his vicinity, can be wired up to live broadcast for a reason. And that – no less than the fact that rival fans mix so cheerfully, or reliably fall silent for a kick at goal – will have rather more to do with sociology than a book of rules.
None the less, it remains hard to believe that even footballers could be so obtuse as not to recognise a Darwinian imperative, once presented with sufficiently meaningful strictures. Players would have to adapt to survive. In rugby, the ball is advanced 10 yards for dissent. Football did have an experiment along similar lines, a few years ago. For various reasons, none auspicious, it was soon abandoned. Granted sufficient will among the game's governors and officials, however, at some point they would surely penetrate this culture of ugly, chronic insubordination: whether with a 10-yard rule, or a sin bin, or even a straight red card. Facing the latter, managers would need only a single, chaotic weekend to guarantee a very different ambience the next match day.
As things stand, managers plainly encourage players to keep officials "under pressure". But that's not really their fault; and nor the players', either. For whatever Mark Clattenburg may or may not have said last Sunday, it has become depressingly apparent in the aftermath that referees themselves cherish fatuous delusions of intimacy with the stars far more dearly than the game's image.
It is depressing enough that any referee might address a player as a "twat". In the same way, court disclosure of the charming repartee between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand invited despair over footballers' odious "banter", long before anyone got round to the question of racial aggravation. You have to suspect that referees could easily ensure the respect of players, if only they had a bit of self-respect.
Association football is not a complicated game. Wouldn't it be delicious to draft in elite rugby referees for a single Premier League weekend, along with their microphones, sin bins and 10-yard rules? With the ears of the world upon them, would footballers not have the wit and basic professionalism to meet the challenge?
Some of us still cling to the belief that the median of probity and decency among their kin is much higher than generally imagined. Perhaps an experiment of this kind would lend gratifying substance to that unorthodox position. Much, however, would hinge on whether Queen's Park Rangers were involved.
Now Mark Hughes somehow appears to have formed the impression that he is rather a good manager. (Too good, clearly, for Fulham.) Yet he seems incapable of inculcating basic professionalism in this squad. Since his arrival in January, they have seen eight red cards – several in memorably idiotic circumstances.
This indiscipline apparently extends to a general lack of leadership. At 35, the admirable Ryan Nelsen must have presumed that he had been hired as role model largely for dressing room and training ground. But Hughes seems to have found no other organisational bulwark.
After Hughes' time at Manchester City came to an end, it was Roberto Mancini's first task there to fortify a porous defence. It was primarily a problem of organisation, rather than personnel, Hughes himself having signed a surviving core of defenders. Of course, he also made several other miscalculations so expensive that City could not redress them at any price. Yet QPR's struggles are nothing to do with Hughes. Nothing to do with the fact that he has deployed so many players, with little intelligible sense of strategy, vision or leadership. No, it's all about forces beyond his control. Injuries. Players bedding in. And, lest we forget, lousy refs.
But perhaps there is a simpler explanation. Might there be some connection between being rubbish at discipline, on the one hand, and being rubbish at football, on the other? I think we should be told. If only Reading could bring a London Irish referee with them tomorrow, we certainly would be.
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