Football must change if it is to regain respect

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: North-East referee Mark Clattenburg's conduct has been questioned

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: North-East referee Mark Clattenburg's conduct has been questioned

First published in Scott Wilson The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

REGARDLESS of what Mark Clattenburg did or did not say to Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel on Sunday, the London club's subsequent accusations of racism have brought issues surrounding refereeing firmly into the spotlight.

On the specific issue of what happened at Stamford Bridge, if - and it remains a big if - Clattenburg referred to Mikel as a "monkey", which is what a number of Chelsea players are alleging, there can be no excuse for the North-Easterner's conduct.

An absence of context, the pressure of such a high-profile fixture or a split-second moment of madness - either way, it wouldn't matter. Integrity is crucial to a referees' role, and Clattenburg's would be shot. It is hard to see how he could remain in his position.

Whether Clattenburg is proved innocent or guilty in the future though, the damage to the status and image of refereeing in this country has already been done. And regardless of what you might think about the current standard of Premier League referees, that is a problem.

Apart from the players themselves, the referee is the one person you cannot stage a football game without. From Sunday-morning park matches to the World Cup final, the presence of a referee is essential.

But be honest, at the moment, would you want to referee a Premier League fixture?

Despite the advent of professionalism, the pay is not all that great. Off the field, you are subjected to the most intense scrutiny from irate managers, infuriated supporters and a media with an insatiable appetite for drama and controversy.

And on it, you are constantly being harangued by foul-mouthed players screaming obscenities in your face as they gang up to give you grief. An enticing prospect? Not exactly.

Respect - and there's a word that is dripping in irony given the Football Association's much-trumpeted but ultimately unsuccessful 'respect campaign' - is non-existent. Consequently, something has to change.

As a sport that is governed by a range of inherently conservative institutions, football has long been reluctant to embrace technology or look to other sports for advice. On this occasion, though, that is exactly what should happen.

The twin codes of rugby union and rugby league have their own issues relating to the on-field conduct of players, but it is undeniable that in both sports, the role of the referee is sacrosanct. Why? Because the rules and in-game technology are designed to protect and support the notion that the referee is in a more elevated position than the players around him.

It is why only the captain of a team is allowed to speak to the official, thereby avoiding the obscene spectacle regularly witnessed on a football field of a baying mob of players hurtling to surround a referee.

In both codes of rugby, any dissent towards an official, no matter how innocuous, incurs an immediate penalty. It could be a spell in the sin-bin, it could mean a penalty being moved ten yards further forward. Either way, there is a consequence to the act.

Swearing at a referee is an automatic sending off offence, as it is in most Sunday-league football games up and down the country.

These seem like perfectly sensible regulations, yet within the upper echelons of the footballing authorities and the country's leading clubs, there is an enduring suspicion of introducing them to football's rule book and ensuring they are inforced.

Why? It might be a cynical viewpoint, but is it because they are afraid of having to lay down the law to pampered multi-millionaires who have become accustomed to having everything their own way?

The other thing different about rugby is that television viewers can hear everything that is said by the referee and within the referee's vicinity.

Given that football referees already wear microphones in order to communicate with their assistants and the fourth official, the technology is already in place for football to follow rugby's lead.

The resistance to such a move is easy to explain. If everything that was said on a Premier League pitch this weekend was broadcast to the world, the outcry from viewers and sponsors would be immediate. No one wants that in their living room.

Yet by allowing it to remain hidden, the footballing authorities are creating an environment where referees feel they have to tolerate and even embrace such 'banter'.

This week, a number of referees have admitted to swearing along with players because they believe it is the only way to get them onside and command their respect.

That cannot be right, but it is an understandable response when there is so little support for any other course of action.

If conversations were broadcast, even with a delay to allow censorship, they would have to be cleaned up immediately. After the disputed events of last weekend, it is time to embrace such a system.

**

WHEN Steve Bruce was dismissed last December, Sunderland had won two of their last 13 league matches. Martin O'Neill's record ahead of tomorrow's game with Aston Villa? One win from his last 16.

It is a dreadful record, and undoubtedly contributed to the boos that rang around the Stadium of Light in the wake of Tuesday's Capital One Cup defeat to Middlesbrough.

Does it suggest that O'Neill is failing? After a fantastic start, it is hard to deny that the Northern Irishman has not had anything like the impact most had hoped for.

But given that the current run is really just a continuation of the form under Bruce, might it not also reflect the almighty mess that O'Neill inherited?

Bruce left an unbalanced squad lacking creativity and established Premier League class. You don't change that simply by signing Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson and Carlos Cuellar.

Turning Sunderland around will be a lengthy and difficult job. O'Neill is still at the start of the process, although even he would admit that a short-term improvement is required if his long-term ambitions are to have any chance of coming to fruition.

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