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Respect. It’s a four letter word.

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It’s unlikely Aretha Franklin was much of a soccer fan – let alone appreciative of the hapless officials – when she asked us to give her respect, but you sense the men in black may soon need to resort to blasting out the soul classic before the game to get their message across.

The refereeing debate has once again been pushed to the forefront in recent weeks, headed by the bizarre goal that never was in the Watford v Reading game, along with a few iffy penalty decisions, and the reaction of Middlesborough players following Emmanuel Pogatetz’s horror tackle on Rodrigo Possebon.

Already the FA’s respect campaign looks to be stuttering.

Managers roll their eyes talk of giving respect to the referee when he gets the decisions right, while barely a game seems to go by without Andy Gray launching himself into a supersonic apoplexy over a couple of 50-50 decisions before letting the word ‘respect’ hang in the air, like an expert prosecutor concluding his unshakeable case to the jury with a damning final piece of evidence.

Some may say they have a point – if the referee can’t get key decisions right, why should he or she get any respect? But if the man upholding the law continues to be pillared every week, the centre of the game itself is in anger of collapsing, and football, as a sport, does itself no favours by continuing to elevate the officials to the level of Britain’s Most Wanted.

Tackling the root of the problem

It’s no secret that football has a problem with retaining referees, with as many quitting as signing up each year, many of them citing abuse as the main reason for hanging up their whistle. This, in turn, has a knock on effect from bottom to top as it will take longer to train top-class referees and means much time and money is devoted to volunteers who turn their back on the profession after deciding it’s simply not worth it.

Although the cameras catch everything in the Premiership and the rest of the Football League, magnifying the worst instances of abuse (think Manchester United players surrounding Andy D’Urso, Javier Mascherano’s sending off last season, and Paulo Di Canio’s petulant push on Paul Alcock) it’s actually at the lower levels where the abuse is greatest. Just over a week ago, a player was jailed and banned for life for knocking out the referee during a Sunday league game.

But lower level leagues have seized the initiative, so while pundits like Gray and the likes of Ferguson, Hughes and Bruce do their best to question the respect campaign, many regional FAs and non-league officials have stopped talking and simply got on with it.

As per rugby, only captains can approach the referee over match incidents and, at parks and youth level, spectators and subs are taped off away from the pitch to prevent abuse. There’s also the obligatory handshake before the game. Meanwhile, Conference chairman Brian Lee sent a warning shot towards teams at non-league’s top tier warning them bad behaviour on the pitch would not be tolerated, particularly swearing directed at the officials.

However some, including Graham Poll, have argued that such moves should be applied at the top level of the game as well to ensure respect filters down through all levels of the game.

Swearing by the ref’s decision

Poll could have probably gone further with his demands and asked that everybody involved in the game did their bit to make respect work – players, managers, the crowd, the media, the authorities, and, yes, the referees themselves.

The likes of Gray are some of the biggest offenders the undermining of the respect campaign. Pundits are as much role models and ambassadors for the game, so it’s somewhat depressing when the ex-pro brought into summarize offers a continual angry critique of any decision by the referee that offends their sensibilities.

Although Gray is not the worst offender for this – examples can be heard across the spectrum – he is by far the most regular and high-profile and has made his rants towards the ref part of his stock-in-trade. Listening to his commentary at both Everton v Liverpool and Wigan v Manchester City, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the respective referees should have been on trial at the Haig for war crimes. Until media pundits take Respect seriously, much of the rest of the country will have difficulty leaping on board.

Managers too seem to view Respect as a new form of swear word that can be strategically deployed during post-match interviews to make their comments seem balanced but only serve to undermine the cause further.

And yes, referees can help themselves by applying more consistency to their decisions, and striving for accuracy – both will help when it comes to supporting the Respect argument off the pitch. Speaking to the managers and captains before the game and reminding them of their duties, and an opportunity to explain decisions to players, fans, and media alike after the game would help as well. It may even help cut out some of the recklessly dangerous tackles we’ve seen in recent weeks from the likes of Pogatetz and Danny Guthrie.

It is unfortunate that there have been some high profile mistakes in recent weeks, not least the aforementioned phantom goal in the Watford v Reading game (although the Reading players could have easily squared matters themselves). Thankfully, such monumental mistakes are, like assaults or Di Canio’s push on Alcock, preciously rare. One large, bad decision does not mean there is a crisis in qualities of referees.

One of the joys of football is you can show 50 different people the same match and they’ll all come away with 50 different opinions on every aspect of the game. The same is true for refereeing decisions. The men in black are only human, will make mistakes and don’t have the benefit of endless immediate replays to clear up confusion.

But the more marginal (and even not so marginal, like Ashley Cole and his teammates’ reaction to his booking against Spurs last season)) decisions will provoke heated discussion, which is why respecting the ref’s decision is so vital.

It would be interesting to see how Premier League managers, players and pundits would react to watching lower level referees. The gap in quality between the likes of Steve Bennett and Mike Riley compared to their counterparts in the Conference and below is high – and understandably so. Put the two side by side and it becomes easier to see why they’ve risen to the top. It’s also noticable that the best refs in the Conference get quickly moved up the pyramid, which suggests the FA’s system of assessment is working.

Learning from others

Much has been made of the idea of placing more responsibility upon the captain in the respect campaign; only that one player is allowed to communicate to the officials about match incidents. It’s an idea taken from rugby and there’s much else the oval ball game could teach football.

The sport is arguably more physical than football, and the rules can be even more confusing with referees decisions over fouls, penalties and infringements often even more debatable. Yet rugby doesn’t seem to have the same problem that football does with respecting the officials and it’s clear where the authority lies on the pitch. The ‘captain only’ rule plays a large part in this.

A TV video judge has also improved matters considerably as well (although, as England will well testify after the last World Cup Final, there will always be some tries that are too tight to call even with video evidence) and the likes of Arsene Wenger have long been advocates of such technology.

The worry is video replays would move football towards a more stop-start nature, but this needn’t be the case. A TV referee needn’t be called upon for every decision, just those where the referee cannot be sure and requests a second opinion, or where a decision is immediately and obviously wrong, such as the phantom goal that never was. Players may also be less inclined to dive or lunge in if they think there’s less chance they’ll get away with it.

But ultimately, it’s within the game that football should look for a prime example on how to treat the game properly. The late Brian Clough may divide opinion over many issues, but when it came to discipline his teams were second to none.

Rarely would you see one of Clough’s teams surround the referee or spending several minutes complaining and swearing in the direction of the officials after a decision went against them. Clough simply would not accept that behaviour from his players, and encouraged them to direct their frustrations towards winning the game. Today’s managers could learn a lot of Old Big ‘Ead.

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