The Peter Corrigan Column: Red card alert for the sworn enemy of the game

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The Independent Football

Indeed, unless you read the right newspaper yesterday you wouldn't even know that players who swear at referees are going to be sent off in a crackdown on misbehaviour. The case of Wayne Rooney was cited as an example. One of the enduring memories of last season was of Rooney delivering a ripe mouthful at referee Graham Poll during a match at Highbury. Why he didn't get a red card at the time was a mystery, but he would certainly collect one this season.

Perhaps Poll wasn't the best example to use because he is subject to an allegation, which he denies, that he went on a drunken spree at a referees' training camp and clambered over cars. Players will have to be advised whether calling him a "car climber" counts as abusive language.

But all manner of debate and clarity-seeking discussions that these disciplinary initiatives deserve have been denied by their late and hurried arrival. There has been an impressive amount of work behind the scenes and all parties concerned with the game at its highest level have been consulted, but it is puzzling that managers have somehow slipped from the target area.

There was a lack of co-ordination that added to the strangeness, because the first intimation that a clampdown was in the air came on Monday when a still, small voice struggled plaintively to be heard amid the gathering clamour of the upcoming season. It belonged to the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, and the subject of his entreaty was the importance of respect from players and managers towards referees in the months ahead.

The sentiments he expressed would receive the approval of the vast majority of us who are bracing ourselves for the usual parade of petulance and misbehaviour that disfigures the otherwise beguiling qualities of our national game. Unfortunately, not many would have been aware of his plea. I saw it referred to in only one newspaper, and I struggled for an hour or more even to find it on the FA's own website. This may not be entirely the chairman's fault. In a game lorded over by loudmouths, he is not known as a man worth listening to.

What he is known for is difficult to say. Surviving, I suppose, is his main claim to fame. A sniper could starve to death waiting for his head to appear over the parapet. Thompson may have many qualities, but when it comes to the visible and audible leadership his position as chairman of football's governing body ought to provide he is woefully lacking.

We've been aware of his public shortcomings for so long we shouldn't be surprised at his reticence. He was absolutely correct to utter a few words on the eve of the season on a subject dear to many hearts, but it was a shame they were so easy to miss and that they were not backed by one threat of retribution. Players, he said, have a responsibility to play within the laws, to respect their opponents and, most of all, to respect the referee. He talked vaguely about refs being given the power to enforce this. He laid more emphasis on managers who, he said, should go straight to the FA if they have a complaint about a referee and not make their comments in public and undermine the authority of referees.

This is where managers crossed the line. Any comment they made that undermined the refs' authority "should be dealt with". "You cannot have the privilege of being a manager without the responsibility," he told them. Welcome words, but no mention of how managerial wrongdoers could be more strictly dealt with.

Then, on Friday afternoon, came the official announcement, which was much stricter and delivered by the massed ranks of the FA, the Premier League, the Football League, the Professional Footballers' Association and the League Managers' Association. Their words of warning concerned abusive language to match officials, on-pitch mass confrontations and dangerous tackles.

The warning was relayed by Keith Hackett, the chief of the Professional Game Match Officials, who said: "Referees have been instructed that a player who provokes a direct confrontation with a match official using offensive, insulting or abusive language will be sent off. It is about asking players to look at themselves. We are warning them that the last thing we want to see is nine men against seven, but it will not be ignored."

Over the past year Hackett claims to have forged a much closer working relationship with the PFA and the LMA, and everyone is agreed that they need to avoid the high-profile incidents that have detracted from the game in the past.

"Adherence to the laws this season will mean those who do transgress will be dealt with in a firm fashion. We do not want to see the competitive and passionate side taken out of our game, but there has to be an understanding of the need to maintain a positive image," he said. The PFA have produced dressing-room posters reminding players of their position as role models. The FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick, said: "This is about the game pulling together and showing definitive and public support for the guys who have a tough job to do. Through the FA, we want behaviour to improve throughout the game."

It is all impressive stuff, but one is bound to ask why, if he feels so strongly about the subject, the FA chairman wasn't present to add his weight to the warnings. As we have said before, he does occupy the most important position in the governance of English football and, heaven knows, we need strong leadership. Doesn't he want to get involved in the vital nitty-gritty?

And, after he highlighted the managerial problems, why are there no precise strictures laid out for them? If swearing footballers are going to see the red card, what fate awaits the moaning managers?

The subject was dealt with at Friday's press conference by the LMA's chief executive, John Barnwell, who said: "All managers have a responsibility as they are in a prestigious position. They can affect mass confrontations, foul and abusive language or simulation 'diving'.

"They can also certainly control their own pre-match or post-match criticism or discussion about match officials," he said. But, again, no mention of what sanctions would apply to the likes of Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and Graeme Souness if they repeat the regular rollockings they gave to referees last season. Nothing is more likely to negate the effectiveness of appeals to the better natures of players if their managers are repeatedly heaping disrespect on refs and continually questioning their ability and, in some cases, their honesty.

Three months away from the action and imprisoned next to the chairman in the stand would be a fitting deterrent to most of them - especially at Old Trafford, where it would mean sitting next to one of Malcolm Glazer's sons while answering daft questions.

The only way to judge this clean-up campaign is in its execution, and we require plenty of swift evidence of the seriousness of their intent.

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