When UEFA launched its much-vaunted Respect campaign, its president Michel Platini called on a leading manager to say a few supportive, stirring words. The manager, a revered figure in football, delivered eloquently on the need to respect referees.
"There has been, over the years, an increase in attempts to manipulate the referee, such as players crowding around the referees, and it can't do the referee's confidence any good – you're undermining his authority,'' said the manager. "The backing-off process and respect of decisions is a step we hope will improve the quality of referees and the game itself." So said Alex Ferguson.
So said the man who strode on to the pitch at Old Trafford on St Stephen's Day, remonstrating with referee Mike Dean over a contentious decision to award Newcastle United's second goal. So, let's run through those campaign points again.
Respect of decisions? No. Undermining the referee's authority? Yes. Backing-off? Hardly. Ferguson was in Dean's face.
If the Manchester United manager had behaved so stroppily in a UEFA game, demonstrating such dissent, Platini's organisation would have banned him to the stands for a game or two. Sadly, the English FA, the Premier League and weak-willed officials are too scared of Ferguson. He's a brilliant manager, a legend of the game, and we'll miss him deeply when he retires, but such emasculation of officials damages the game he loves.
As Ferguson set fire to the FA's own already-battered Respect document and the Premier League's anaemic 'Get On With The Game'' treatise, two elements of his character glistened under the Old Trafford lights, the philosopher and the fighter. First, Ferguson was making a legitimate footballing enquiry about why Jonny Evans' own goal was allowed to stand when Papiss Cisse was patently interfering with play by distracting, even panicking, the Manchester United centre-half. Ferguson had a point.
The combative in Ferguson's DNA then replaced the cerebral. He lectured Dean, the assistant referee Jake Collin and the fourth official Neil Swarbrick. This was potentially intimidating. Ferguson is a formidable character, a titan of his trade, and they would inevitably feel in awe, perhaps in fear. Old Trafford is the Scot's lair, and it takes men of substance to stand up to him, to remind him of the 'R' word. Respect.
The FA points out that it is unable to take retrospective action, that United would simply have thrown any charge back by saying the referee did not have a problem with Ferguson as Dean did not either send the Scot to the stands or note the offence in his report. So, the spotlight falls on Dean for either being weak or simply not wanting the grief of calling to account somebody as powerful as Ferguson. Dean let down his colleagues.
Along with a complicit FA, Dean has set a damaging precedent, allowing managers to confront them without fear of punishment.
As one footballing administrator observed: "A high-profile figure calling it on with a referee is not going to help the Respect campaign.''
Ferguson's pitch incursion, and prolonged second-half chuntering at officials, complicates the missionary grassroots work of FA staff, attempting to foster respect for officials. When aspiring managers and players note the most famous footballing icon squaring up to officials, they will feel less bound by the rules of Respect.
Ferguson must remember he is a role model, a manager who sets the tone for so much in this wonderful, maddening game. We know Ferguson is the master of the Machiavellian, the mind-games guru, who might even use an incident with a referee to fire up players when his team struggle for a spark.
Ferguson is in the results business, trying to pull away in the title race, and his will to win can elbow others, even an old codger called Respect, out of the way in the headlong rush to the finishing line.
Those of us long-term admirers of Ferguson feel frustration and also confusion at his stance. This is a man who talks often of the importance of respect, of how society has sadly become increasingly questioning and adversarial. He sees a lack of respect in some young professionals, and reprimands those who dare refer to him as 'Fergie'. He dislikes those reporters who attend United press conferences in jeans. Ferguson is big on respect.
This season, Ferguson has commendably spoken of the need for respect among supporters, even writing to those United fans travelling to Anfield in September "to stand with our great neighbours Liverpool" after the Hillsborough findings. More recently, he called on players like Jason Roberts to show respect for the Kick It Out campaign. Respect features in his thinking day after day, on issue after issue. So Ferguson needs to look before he leaps on to the pitch. (© Daily Telegraph, London)