Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

James Lawton: Ferguson and Wenger cannot be soft on cheats then hard on officials

Sir Alex Ferguson criticised the linesman who missed the tackle on Wayne Rooney by Spurs defender Steven Caulker

Down the years Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger have been the most strident victims of referee error, real or imagined, and yet again they are in full voice.

In the case of Ferguson there is the familiar – but in his unique circumstances apparently carefree – complication of serious impugning of a match official's integrity, this time the linesman Simon Beck, who managed to miss the tackle on Wayne Rooney by Spurs defender Steven Caulker which even in these duplicitous times screamed out penalty. It was about as discreet as a mugging.



Wenger, who once claimed not to have seen a dive by his former star Robert Pires which, all these years on, many still believe remains the British and All-Comers record mark for deviousness, merely says that the officiating of referee Martin Atkinson profoundly distorted the result of Sunday's game between Arsenal and Chelsea.



The trouble is that if we draw a veil for a moment over Ferguson's toxic habit of lumping together accusations of professional incompetence and terrible working bias, we are bound to agree that in at least one important sense both managers are right.



Two of the season's most vital games were indeed decisively influenced by official error.



United should have had the penalty which would have insulated them against Tottenham's last-minute equaliser, and might just have become vital in the outcome of the title race, and if for whatever reason Beck failed in his duty, referee Chris Foy was – as his former colleague Graham Poll points out – near enough to make his own decision.



As to the protests of Wenger, again the manager was 100 per cent correct.



Referee Atkinson should have blown up when Ramires brought down Arsenal's Francis Coquelin quite cynically moments before Juan Mata opened the Chelsea scoring – and a few minutes later the official was in error again when he awarded Ramires a penalty and Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny a yellow card after the Brazilian had artfully – well, that's one way of putting it – manufactured his own fall.



Gary Neville had his own words for it – and in their uttering I'm afraid the new doyen of professional analysts carried us into the heart of football's deepening crisis.



Neville said it was a "clever dive" and a series of reruns, which of course were not available to the referee – eloquently confirmed his verdict. Ramires, instead of thrusting his free right leg in pursuit of the ball, brought it back against the goalkeeper. In the new spirit of the game Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez's contribution to the miscarriage of justice was to jump up and down and wave an imaginary red card.



Neville's evaluation, which was no doubt much appreciated by all those who believe that football's obsession with gaining any advantage, however illegally, is an ever-growing shadow over what is supposed to be a beautiful game, was not accompanied by any moral judgement. Neville was simply telling it how it is, which is to say that anything goes if you can get away with it.



It is here that the protests of Ferguson and Wenger have to be seen in the harshest light. To be fair to Ferguson, he did say recently that some of the excessive gamesmanship of his player Ashley Young did demand at the very least a degree of conversation. Not even this elevated moral ground – such as it is and who wouldn't say it is derisory? – is not so readily available to Wenger – not after last month's stomach-wrenching, penalty-earning dive by his virtuoso Santi Cazorla against West Bromwich.



Before he fell, untouched, like a winged, plump-chested wood pigeon from the sky he had told the world: "Sometimes you dive yet it is something which shouldn't be a big controversy. It is something that happens in football. Sometimes you are thinking, 'Will they touch me or won't they touch me?' You go over and then you realise they haven't touched you. It just happens."



Sure it does – like a card from the bottom of the pack or something smeared across a boxing glove.



If Ferguson and Wenger want any kind of understanding of how it is to see your week's work go up in smoke perhaps they should show us a little more convincingly that they too are nauseated by the descent of the game in which they have waxed so famous and influential.



However he phrased it, and whatever the lack of accompanying critical reaction, Neville fingered Ramires along with so much of today's football. He pointed out something that referees, along with most of the rest of us, are inclined to miss at the sharpest end of the action. He talked about the clever dive, as opposed to the dumb dive, the dive that transparently mocks the best values of a game that invaded the imagination of the world, the dive that Cazorla performed so shamelessly, provoking the carefully measured response of his boss, a man revered in many quarters for the fineness of his football vision, that he apologised if it "wasn't a penalty".



Football has passed the point of such niceties of judgement. It cannot so relentlessly criticise the work of referees when so much of their time is necessarily spent trying to cut through an ever-growing web of deceit. Football has to consider quite what it is marketing, something which can still be identified as sport or an unbroken stream of subterfuge.



A degree of conscience and new and extensive powers for fourth officials armed with technology would help. So would large amounts of disinfectant.

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