In today’s press conference, Sir Alex Ferguson was asked about his conduct with officials during his team’s narrow win over Newcastle on Boxing Day. And naturally he played the incidents down as a press issue rather than an issue with his actual conduct. When the topic turned to Alan Pardew’s thoughts on Fergie harassing the officials, the United manager lashed out at Pardew, calling him “the worst” and then had a go at the press saying that they have covered every possible angle, except perhaps getting President Obama’s reaction.
I happen to know President Obama (all Americans know each other) and had a chance to talk with him last night over a few beers in the White House beer garden.* As it turns out he has quite a surprising take on this whole incident.
7amkickoff: President Obama, thank you for taking time out of your busy day to have a chat with me about this important issue. Was that whats-his-name the Republican speaker, Cliff Fiscal, who just walked away in a huff? Is there some kind of impending financial thing you need to deal with?
President Obama: It’s nothing. At least not nearly as important as football!
7amkickoff: Cool, you have by now heard about the disgraceful actions of Sir Alex Ferguson in Man U’s win over Newcastle, where he literally spit a dummy while haranguing the officials on the touch line. Then at half time he continued the tirade and had a furious row with the lead official Mike Dean. What are your thoughts on this?
President Obama: First, one man’s “disgraceful” actions are another man’s “passionate exchange”. As you know, Tim, the United States is a country of laws. And as a country of laws we always have to ask what law was broken? And in this case, it seems like Sir Alex Ferguson broke no laws. As an Arsenal fan you should respect that, because what you don’t want is for the Premier League to go around randomly punishing people whenever someone is strung up by the media. After all, if Arsenal fans are right and their club is more persecuted than others, then the League might just decide to make an example of Arsene Wenger.
7amkickoff: The problem is that his actions seem to give credence to the widespread belief that Fergie intimidates the officials and in so doing gets preferential treatment for his team. The League has a global audience and surely they don’t want to hurt the reputation of the League’s competitiveness by seeming to let Fergie get away with this?
Obama: The League isn’t really competitive and we all know that. Manchester United have won 12 of the 20 titles in Premier League. And in the last eight years, when United’s monopoly has been most challenged, it’s been challenged by teams who are willing to spend obscene amounts of money to buy the title. Clubs like West Ham, my club, have not gone into a Premier League season hoping to win the League title in a long time. So, this is not a competitive League.
This is a three-tiered League with a small group at the very top who spend the most, buy the best, and compete for the top honors followed by a group of also-rans who are trying to either hold on to or achieve Champions League football. Below that are the clubs who are just trying to hang on. The competition, then, is among those peers and not across the League.
That said, this is about rules and following the rules. If the League wants to stop managers from harassing officials I’m all for it but they need to make the rules clear first. They need to publish a guideline for managers, officials, and the hacks in the press so that everyone knows what to expect the next time Alan Pardew or Fergie have a go at an official.
Personally, I’m in favor of a “dissent” model. Officials could warn a manager with a yellow card in the same way they treat players who are yelling at them. Two yellow cards in a game and the manager would receive a one-match ban and some kind of fine. Three yellow cards in a season would also result in a one match ban and a fine. You could change the punishment to make it harsher or looser, but the point is that there must be agreed upon rules before they start punishing people.
7amkickoff: But Dean was the same official who sent Arsene Wenger to the stands for kicking a water bottle, surely there’s precedent and surely there’s preferential treatment for Fergie who was far more demonstrative than Wenger?
Obama: Yes, there is precedent but it’s not Wenger being sent off, it’s Dean having to apologize to Wenger for sending him off. Again, there’s a lot of confusion about the rules here which is the real problem. Wenger was apparently sent off for “improper conduct” but then the officials apologized to him for not handling the situation well. There is no question that casts doubt in the minds of the officials. That’s why I think the rules need to be clearly defined for managers, punishments outlined, and judgments followed through on.
But this highlights another problem with English officiating and that is that the official’s match report is the law. Once an official makes a report of an incident the League will not “re-officiate” the games and hand out punishments where they probably should. Major League Soccer does this and it works very well. Leg breaking tackles are no longer forgiven simply because the official saw it and didn’t think it was a red card. That’s a good thing for the game and the players. But again, this needs to be implemented as a rules change and not just applied capriciously.
Major League Soccer also uses that foam for officials to draw a line on the pitch and set the wall back 10 yards and that works exceptionally well. In the Premier League matches I’ve watched the wall is usually set at about 6 to 7 yards and the officials seem disinterested in doing anything about it. One official in an Arsenal game couldn’t even march off 10 yards. It was crazy. For me, this is a much bigger problem in English Football than the fourth official taking abuse.
7amkickoff: President Obama, I know you need to get back to your negotiations with Cliff Fiscal so I have just one last question, Arsenal play Newcastle led by Alan Pardew tomorrow in the late game, who do you think will win?
Obama: I’ve been a huge fan, Tim, of Alan Pardew since I first fell in love with West Ham under his guidance. In fact, I do the Pardew Shuffle every time I win any victory against Congress. And honestly, thought Man U were very fortunate to win that game — van Persie got away with an ugly slap to Coloccini’s face in the build-up to Chicharito’s winner (something I think MLS would have had a look at and possibly banned van Persie for). Newcastle’s game plan was to press the United midfield and it’s the same plan they should probably take with Arsenal. But the problem is that they seemed to start flagging toward the end of the game and that’s when Man U won. I have to wonder how fresh Newcastle are for this game?
And just as important, Arsenal sometimes play like a “zombie team” just sort of slowly recycling the ball at the top of the box. To counter this, the Gunners really need Cazorla and Wilshere to attack the channels and get onto the end of Giroud’s knock downs and that means increasing their work rate in midfield — something that I think you pointed out has dropped significantly in the last two games, despite winning.
So, I think Arsenal’s fresher legs will carry the day and you might even see one of those rare sparkling games that Arsenal produce. But they will need to weather the pressure from Newcastle in midfield and be wary of Ba and Cisse, both of whom are auditioning for roles at top clubs.
I’m going with 3-2 to The Arsenal.
*No I didn’t. Do I really need to say that? Probably.