In the last 48 hours, two Premier League managers have been punished for the way they reacted to officiating in matches their teams lost: first Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson received a five-match touchline ban and $48,222 fine from the FA for questioning Martin Atkinson's refereeing at Stamford Bridge at the start of the month, then Arsene Wenger was banned for one match and fined $13,952 by UEFA after confronting Champions League referee Massimo Busacca at the end of Arsenal's defeat to Barcelona.
Ferguson has already opted not to appeal the decision, and it is widely anticipated that Wenger will also accept the punishment, though neither could be described as being happy. Ferguson's adviser, Graham Bean -- who told ESPNsoccernet that assessors had also criticized Atkinson in their reports -- has likened the FA to "a communist state, in the way that you cannot speak out against authority."
The Manchester United manager is not one to lose sight of the bigger picture, and as his team prepares for a closely fought title run-in without key players (on top of hamstring injuries to Rafael da Silva and John O'Shea, and Nemanja Vidic's back trouble, it emerged this week that Rio Ferdinand's calf injury will keep him out for the rest of the season), it suits him to create at Old Trafford the singed atmosphere of a besieged castle. But he is not alone in feeling that this punishment does not fit the crime.
For some, including Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti (who will be acutely aware of the benefit to his team of Atkinson's reluctance to dismiss David Luiz), the five-match ban is excessive. Certainly it's the first time a Premier League manager has served such a lengthy ban, and Ferguson will be the first to sit out a date at Wembley when United take on Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal next month. The scale of the ban is the least of its problems, however. It's about time that we acknowledged two things: one, touchline bans are about as effective as the naughty step, and two, this system has it all backward.
The naughty step
In the last few seasons, Ferguson has served touchline bans for rows with referees Mark Clattenburg and Mike Dean, flirted with trouble by making disparaging remarks about Clattenburg, Atkinson, Andre Marriner and Chris Foy, and in October 2009 became the first Premier League manager to receive a touchline ban for postmatch comments about an official. He'd accused Alan Wiley of being unfit and dwelling on decisions in order to catch his breath. Two of the five matches Ferguson will now miss are suspended from that 2009 ban.
Wenger, a manager in danger of being recognized for his complaints about officials as much as his achievements at Arsenal, has already served a touchline ban this season for his confrontation with Atkinson at Sunderland's Stadium of Light. His rap sheet, including charges brought by the FA and UEFA, goes back a similarly long way, though it has probably cost him less than Ferguson, who has run up substantial fines for his referee-related infractions.
The two are not alone, of course. West Ham United manager Avram Grant was charged with improper conduct this week, having suggested that referee Mike Jones had sought to offer Stoke City an advantage after realizing he'd missed a handball in the buildup to Frederic Piquionne's goal. Stoke won 2-1. "Maybe he felt a little bit weak," he said. It's not the first time his comments about English referees have raised the prospect of a touchline ban.
Earlier in the season, Blackpool manager Ian Holloway was banned for one game for confronting a referee in the tunnel. Everton's David Moyes was fined for storming on to the pitch to shout at the referee after he blew the final whistle on Everton's 3-3 draw with Manchester United. Though they range on a scale from rather undignified arm-flapping rage to more circumspect reflection, virtually every Premier League manager has criticized at least one official's performance this season.
It's not just that the threat of a touchline ban is no deterrent; the impact of a touchline ban is virtually nonexistent. In Scotland, there have been numerous, often lengthy, touchline bans in recent seasons (Celtic manager Neil Lennon seems to have spent half of this campaign barred from the dugout), but criticism of referees recently reached such a dangerous tipping point that a strike was called.
Celtic is still top of the SPL, and it's indicative of the wider trend that United's form has not suffered during Ferguson's absences; it won four games he missed in 2008 and 2009. Even beforehand, Vidic said: "I don't think there will be a big difference, he sees everything and he will still have contact with the coach. During the game... you don't look over to the bench."
Bans handed out by the English FA merely prevent the manager's presence down at pitch level. Before the game, and at halftime, he can speak to players in the dressing room. Sitting in the stands during play, he can speak to his coaches on a telephone -- from a position some managers, such as Sam Allardyce, often prefer because of the elevated vantage point. It's no wonder that the impact is minimal.
UEFA's bans are more wide-ranging bans -- Wenger will not be allowed in the dressing room or tunnel, and must not contact his staff --, but Jose Mourinho, who's served bans at Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid, delighted in getting around one by being smuggled in to the dressing room in a skip full of kit. There were strong suspicions that notes were being passed out during the game, and that one Chelsea coach was wearing an earpiece. In 2007, Wenger described the bans as "artificial ... You can always communicate if you really want to."
A backward system
The repeated incidents also tell us that managers will not be dissuaded from having an opinion about the performance of referees. Managerial posts hang on results, a fact that makes injustice -- real or perceived -- worth politicking. A system whereby managers are required to give postmatch interviews (a directive that came in, ironically, the same day that Ferguson was banned over his Wiley comments) but referees are actively discouraged from addressing the media makes no sense.
Especially when retrospective changes to decisions cannot be made. When Clattenburg recently awarded only a free-kick for Wayne Rooney's elbow on James McCarthy, the rules did not allow the FA to contradict his decision -- made in real time, with only one view -- using video footage. Afterward an unnamed referee told The Telegraph: "We would like to be able to say to the FA, 'I've seen something but I'd like it checked'."
Would it not be far healthier, more meaningful and instructive to encourage dialogue between all parties (even if FIFA rules still preclude retrospective changes)? Just before being banned for shouting at Dean, Holloway said he would learn to behave properly, but added: "I'd like [the referees] to explain to me why that is a foul. Then I can show my defenders: 'that is a foul and you can't do that at this level'. Then I can move on and stop arguing. It makes sense, doesn't it, if I don't understand something."
There may be just a hint of facetiousness in Holloway's words, but his point is sound. Managers' apparently increasing ire toward officials is not just a sign of their desperation to deflect attention from poor results; it's also borne of frustration at the one-sidedness of the conversation, which fosters the feeling that the FA refuses to acknowledge officials' mistakes. The governing body is protective of its referees and the scant respect they already receive, but is it misguided to assume that shielding them from the postmatch autopsy helps?
"Refereeing and the media performance are two different things," retired Dutch World Cup referee, Mario van der Ende, told me recently. "But if a few million people can see on television that you made a mistake, it's better to say that you were wrong.
"Sometimes I'm surprised at how media football analysts interpret the rules of the game -- knowledge is not only for referees. Give an experienced referee, with good knowledge, five minutes to explain and then everybody knows."
Why not give the referees concerned the chance to explain a call -- and the opportunity to say if and how their decision might have been affected by repeated viewings, different angles and so on? Managers rail at officials in far more personal terms than they would tolerate themselves; it would humanize the officiating process to remind everyone that they're talking to and about real people, all doing their best.
Ferguson's description of soccer as "the only industry where you can't tell the truth" draws a chuckle because managers can be so selective about which truths they wish to discuss. Inviting clubs and officials to comment on incidents might actually encourage greater realism and more admissions of error on both sides, and would surely lessen the likelihood of the angry scenes we've become accustomed to. It can't be less effective than easily absorbed fines and go-to-your-room admonishments.
Georgina Turner has worked as a sports journalist since 2003. She covers the English Premier League, but also reports on tennis and women's sports for UK magazines.