Is it possible to be pathetically soft at the same time as being absurdly draconian? One wouldn't think so. But then the Football Association hit Sir Alex Ferguson with a punishment that is (a) palpably unfair and (b) blatantly ineffective, and one starts to suspect it may have been workablefor Judge Jeffreys to have overseen recent legislation on bank bonuses.
No, Sir Alex should not have been given a five-match touchline ban for giving an honest appraisal of Martin Atkinson's performance, without really questioning the referee's integrity. And yes, that sanction will mean absolutely nothing to the manager or his team. What a mess. The crime does not befit any sort of punishment, yet the punishment does not befit any sort of crime. Welcome to the madness that is English football.
If the FA truly believe the Manchester United manager to be in the wrong – and if so, they couldn't have heard him, in mid-rant, retract the viewpoint that Atkinson was"unfair" – they should act relevantly.If they invoked a "stadium" instead of a "touchline" ban, Ferguson would be prohibited from speaking to his team, before, during, or indeed after the match. Thanks to the FA's spineless laws, he will be prohibited from standing in the technical area while chewing his Wrigleys and checking his Rolex. That is essentially why he chose not to appeal. Because it's meaningless anyway.
In fact, for the FA this rampant piece of PR-inspired example-making may actually self-harm. It's like slapping the snout of the meanest beast at the head of the Pamplona bull-run in the hope it will bring the rest to heel. Ferguson's bitterness will now fester even more furiously and the sympathetic reaction to a perceived, but actually non-existent, plight will make the martyr and his supporters feel even more rebellious.
"To encourage the others" has never seemed so inappropriately appropriate. And so the erosion of authority will continue apace at the same time as making the FA's Respect campaign look more ridiculous by the week.
Contentious decisions are having huge effects on huge games. You've seen them, they've seen them, the referees haven't. And when they have seen them, they have taken an inappropriate course of action. Always been thus, goes the cry. But there's the point: it hasn't. TV exposes human frailties like never before and the boffins' continued advances mean the problem will get worse not better.
The answer, as everyone but Fifa is aware, is to use the technology. Not merely to ensure fairness, but to take pressure off the referees. There would be an instant, blessed culture shift. No longer would, or could, the bastard in the black be accountable for every shortfall. Alas, that remains a dream. We will have to wait for Rome to burn – or at least Sepp Blatter to bog off – before the governing body exert any meaningful governance. Until then, what? Well, one idea comes from the US. From baseball, no less.
America's national sport has been going through its own descent into chaos as the relationship between umpires, players and managers has broken down. The umpires have long complained that the attitude towards them stinks and certain rules make that stink unavoidable. Conversely, the Major League Baseball Players' Association last year received an unprecedented number of complaints concerning umpires, with a number saying tensions had gone beyond tipping point and wondering why there isn't the same transparency on the performance of officials as there is on the players. Ring any bells?
The MLB vowed to sort out the disarray, with methods other than the same ineffective fines, bans and campaigns. Two Sundays ago the best umpires met with the most influential players. "It was a conversation about on-field issues of mutual concern," said a MLB spokesman. "Some things talked about will result in concrete steps." Fancy that. Solving the problem like grown-ups. Yet perhaps the most intriguing factor about the sit-down was the man overseeing it: Joe Torre, the new vice-president of the MLB in charge of "onfield issues".
Torre is no blazer. Everyone knows him in the US as a legendary manager, perhaps the legendary manager of the modern age, having won four World Series with the Yankees. It is not too outlandish to call him the American Fergie. A year older than the Glaswegian, he retired from the dug-out last year aged 70. If Ferguson is wondering what he should do next – which he almost certainly isn't – then how football should celebrate if he followed Torre's example and, even more unlikely, if the FA took the MLB's lead.
Perhaps Torre wasn't in Ferguson's league of recalcitrance. Yet he was no saint, being ejected from the field more than 60 times in a quarter of a century of management. During his time, he bemoaned the effect one rash verdict could have on a match, on a season, on a career even. But then he decided to do something concrete about it. The poacher turned gamekeeper and, with the unequivocal backing of his new employers, has made it his mission to arrest the decline into sporting anarchy.
He may just succeed, since as one baseball writer told me: "Torre isn't some faceless bureaucrat. He is an enormously respected figure, who understands what is needed to make the players and managers fall in line without making them feel like naughty schoolchildren. Just as importantly, umpires know he'll be taken seriously and feel something substantial is being done. At the very least, the atmosphere will be less confrontational."
True, in that enclosed world Torre will have the wherewithal to alter a few rules and, with Fifa so rigid, any English footballing equivalent would not be so fortunate. But there is some give within the present apparatus, as the dumb handling of this latest Ferguson furore surely proves.
The Respect campaign may have been desperately fruitless – detrimental, even – but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a campaign for respect. And any productive attempt would surely require a figurehead in the Torre mould.
Ferguson, with his naturally defiant spirit and suspicion of communication, might not be the right man. Yet it would take someone approaching his stature. Someone, perhaps, to whom even Fergie might listen.