The Nick Townsend column: 'Sunday morning' rants must act as lesson in humility

Mascherano Moment may prove turning point as game of shame comes to terms with the arrogant beast within
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The Independent Online

On Monday, James Lawton, my Independent colleague, referring to Javier Mascherano's histrionics and subsequent dismissal at Old Trafford, ventured the opinion that "you wouldn't trust him to guide a pub team through a tumultuous Sunday morning". You had to smile, because any of us who have been there, stepped out on some godforsaken patch of muddied turf, wind howling, a million miles from Anfield, in every sense knew what he meant.

This observer was a Fernando Torres of his day, if only in his dreams, possessing not even a scintilla of the Spaniard's talent. Just enthusiasm and the opportunity of fleeting local glory, ahead of a welcome pint. But we all knew the deal once the whistle was blown: a hefty centre-half would clobber you early. Partly to intimidate you, but also to test the referee's resolve. You would appeal to the man in black. "Fucking hell, refereeee! Every time, ref. He's doing me, every time."

It was never an articulate case we argued but the theory was, with referees being on the whole fair-minded individuals, there was a decent chance that he would rule in your favour on subsequent occasions.

Most referees would respond in no uncertain manner. "Shut it, nine. Keep it up and you're off." So you shut it. And perhaps more pertinently, your team-mates ensured there was no further lip.

Many amateur footballers have been to that dark place where Mascherano found himself last Sunday at Old Trafford. Even the most mild-mannered of us can be transformed by what we perceive as injustices. So onecan understand the emotions involved. Even a £17 million footballer is allowed that. But this wasn't one instinctive reaction, it was a sequence, a haranguing of the official reminiscent of his countryman Antonio Rattin, who was "in the face" of referee Rudolf Kreitlein in Argentina's defeat by England in the 1966 World Cup before he was dismissed.

Yet when Mascherano persisted even later in the week that "all I did was ask him [Steve Bennett] what was happening" he was being disingenuous. So was his manager, in defence of the player. So have other managers. It's not a scientific analysis, but one suspects it has been principally those in charge of the other members of the "Big Four", among whom arrogance at what they believe is their due too often overcomes rationale, while moral judgement is too frequently hurled away like an old piece of chewing gum.

Yet they are frequently the first to speak of respect for officials. As Roy Keane says: "We have got to be careful who we listen to. There are a lot of hypocrites out there in football." The former Manchester United midfielder may not be everyone's idea of a man suitably qualified to pontificate on such matters, yet the Sunderland manager speaks for many when he opines: "Managers are coming out and saying we have got to respect the officials, and they are being sent off themselves."

In fairness, Rafa Benitez isn't among that number, and Masch-erano was Liverpool's first League dismissal this season. Yet when the game demanded a strong reaction from the manager – particularly in the wake of Ashley Cole's contempt for Mike Riley four days previously – the Spaniard failed the test. He would have been quite aware that Mascherano's reactions to Bennett's decisions were unacceptable. But, like those parents who can see no wrong in their errant son in schoolboy matches, he tried to defend the indefensible.

Now he is seeking an audience with the referees' supremo, Keith Hackett, to "find a solution". Hackett should politely advise him that the "solution" is the prime responsibility of Benitez and his counterparts, who must accept responsibility for their players' excesses. And let's have none of that nonsense about the captains being allowed to approach referees. It would never just be the captain, anyway; it would be him and a few mates. And what's the point? The official is not going to change his mind and, in general, the best referees do tend to communicate their decisions readily.

Disappointingly, there have been some snide observations regarding Bennett for having the temerity to act correctly, rather than accept that it was Riley who got it wrong. Alan Hansen, normally an astute observer, obliged us with this gem: "If you cannot question a decision in a game, then football is in trouble." On the contrary, football is in trouble because too many players, managers, coaches, even chairmen, question decisions. Thankfully, though, the majority may look back on this as the Mascherano Moment, when the balance of power reverted to the referees.

Time has brought a degree of repentance. But not completely. Benitez said of Mascherano on Friday: "He knows he made a big mistake, he apologised to his team-mates and the supporters and he has now apologised to the referee. He accepts he lost control after the sending-off."

Yet, having admitted a Football Association charge of improper conduct following his dismissal, and having been fined heavily by Liverpool, he asked for a personal hearing. Presumably he wants his day in "court", even though the jury of public opinion has already handed down its judgement.

It includes Sir Bobby Robson who, at 75 and fighting cancer for the fifth time, still loves the sport enough to voice his disapproval. "I want to go back to the Bobby Charltons, Bobby Moores and Billy Wrights," he said. "They knew how to behave. We must stamp out the awful disrespect which is spoiling our game." Perversely, football may thank Mascherano if his actions on a Sunday in March have, unwittingly, served to achieve that.

Home truths for Fabio, time to close book on Becks

Glenn Hoddle expressed the prevailing mood in his inimitable manner: "I haven't seen an England team for a long time not create as much as England did tonight." The former England manager's words summed up perfectly England's night in Paris. The current incumbent was left issuing bizarre claims, notably that David Beckham is comparable to Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney should stay as a lone striker, despite the fact that without the support of Carlos Tevez and Ronaldo he receives at Manchester United the role is anathema to him.

In reality, it was a night which can only have confirmed some uncomfortable truths for Fabio Capello. The principal one was that too many England players do not possess the technical attributes and comfort on the ball to play the possession football he espouses; it is a kind of game alien to most of them.

Capello's decision to employ two holding midfielders, Owen Hargreaves and Gareth Barry, also appears to be taking safety first to unnecessary lengths.

There was a disconcerting feeling that Il Professore, as he is known in Italy, has inherited a bunch of students who struggle to assimilate his teaching. Michael Owen virtually admitted the fact. "I don't know, you'd best ask him [Capello]," he said when asked what his role was. Capello may have been satisfied with some periods of play, principally just before Franck Ribéry's match-winning penalty, when England dominated possession – though, even then, not half as well as France did overall.

Yet invariably it culminated with a lack of incision through the middle, and when the ball did reach the flanks, inept crossing from supposedly elite performers. If Stewart Downing cannot accurately deliver a ball, he may as well not be on the pitch. As for whether Beckham should still be on, it was not proven in Paris. Apart from his diminishing quality on the ball, one cannot envisage him being content to warm the England bench. His footballing life has provided a magnum opus. Surely now it's time to close the book?