Players winning in the blame game
THERE'S nothing those in football love more than an excuse, something to abdicate them from the sort of responsibility that goes with most professional jobs. Every week, at every level of sport, there's moaning about the performance of the referee whose parentage, vision and impartiality is questioned after a game, even though he's the one man of 23 on the field who never touches the ball.
If a corner is crossed in and an opponent is given a free header which the goalkeeper manages to let through his legs, there will be mutterings in the dressing-room about the decision if it shouldn't have been a corner in the first place.
Had Thierry Henry managed to control the ball with the inside of his left thigh and squared it for William Gallas to equalise, Ireland would only have had themselves to blame for their elimination from the World Cup play-offs in Paris.
That it was Henry's left hand which put the ball in his path rendered innocent those who had missed chances, made poor decisions or decided to let the ball bounce. In the subsequent blame-game, Henry and the referee were the overwhelming winners and after a heroic failure and with two obvious scapegoats, what was the point of looking anywhere else?
At some point over the next few weeks, as -- depending on what game is on Sky -- the Premier League 'Race For The Title', 'Battle For Champions League' or 'RELEGATION DOGFIGHT' reaches a crucial moment, a referee will make a decision which in the words of the aggrieved manager "could cost this club millions of pounds".
Their demands will range from the introduction of video technology to insisting that the referee never officiates their team again as they highlight that one instance while ignoring the other 38 games or 3,420 minutes (plus injury-time) of football in which they could have done something to secure those millions of pounds.
If it's not the officials, then the pitch normally has something to do with the result, particularly for those at the upper end of the table who appear surprised that teams who aren't so talented won't just roll over and let them take the points.
In this regard, Arsene Wenger has few peers with some combination of referee, pitch and long-ball usually to blame for Arsenal not picking up all 114 points on offer in a season.
"I think the place is very hostile, but what is most important is the pitch is terrible," moaned Wenger on Saturday. "If we sell the international rights to our game for £1.2bn next year and that means we have to offer something to people when we pretend that we have the best league in the world, the minimum we have to do is take care of our pitches."
Yet it was in injury-time on Saturday with the ball in the air that Arsenal came unstuck. No Arsenal player had the nerve to take responsibility to attack and head away Joe Hart's long punt upfield and, after a bizarre ricochet off Kevin Phillips' face, Manuel Almunia reacted as though he was trying to catch an imaginary ball rather than the one heading towards his net.
The deflection was certainly unlucky from Arsenal's perspective yet Birmingham's equaliser could have been prevented so often that it was churlish for Wenger to look elsewhere for reasons that they threw away two points.
Given the subsequent catastrophic results after Phil Brown delivered the half-time team-talk to his players on the pitch at Manchester City, it's understandable that managers don't publicly blame their players but, by absolving them of responsibility, they create a culture where players can relax, safe in the knowledge that somebody else will carry the can.
While isolated incidents can be blamed on referees or pitches, it takes a different type of excuse to explain away a consistent run of under-achievement which is where the boardroom comes to the rescue.
Len Shackleton's book famously contained a chapter entitled 'The Average Director's Knowledge of Football' which consisted of a blank page and, with the belief that supporters will normally support a tracksuit rather than a suit, a smokescreen is created to cover up for the short-comings on the pitch.
At various stages in the last couple of seasons, Rafael Benitez has taken to criticising the Liverpool board to the point where many supporters can cheerfully ignore the plummeting performance on the field and blame the board for not financially backing a manager who has spend tens of millions of pounds.
At the other end of the table, West Ham's owners David Sullivan and David Gold appear to be on a crusade to get their pictures associated with Shackleton's famous chapter such has been their input in the past few weeks.
Last month, Sullivan's criticism of the players came before a 2-0 victory against Birmingham which the co-owner decided he could claim credit for.
Last week's description of the team's performance against Wolves as "shambolic" and "pathetic" drew a different response with captain Matthew Upson claiming his comments "don't help" the players and that "nobody should delude themselves we are a good team".
Their way of proving it was to go out against Stoke and make Ricardo Fuller look like a 6'4", 15-stone Lionel Messi as he danced past several international players including Upson and slammed the ball past Rob Green to probably bury Gianfranco Zola's rookie managerial career.
Those supporters who streamed out of Upton Park and had a microphone and camera stuck in their faces moaned about the board and Zola who, the common theme went, was too nice.
The players, with an outspoken board and an inexperienced manager to guide them, were more or less excused. Just the way they like it.