The blame game
As the referee came off a Premier League pitch for the final time, a smiling manager put his arm around him, congratulating him on a distinguished career. For a moment, it appeared that the officials' essential part in football was acknowledged and appreciated as David Moyes thanked Peter Walton, retiring from active duty to become general manager of the Professional Referee Organisation in North America.
That, in itself, may be seen as an indication of the esteem in which English officials are held. Yet Walton's farewell, less than a fortnight ago, already appears an age ago. Praising officials was only briefly in favour. Now the unofficial sport of impugning them has resumed.
And, sadly, there have been plenty of reasons to find fault. Courtesy of two offside goals - in the case of Branislav Ivanovic, who later also went unseen when thumping Shaun Maloney, two yards offside - Chelsea beat Wigan. Queens Park Rangers lost both a goal and a man when Shaun Derry was deemed to have tugged Ashley Young and, while the Manchester United winger flew rather theatrically to the ground, the reality that he, too, was offside, should have rendered it all irrelevant, resulting in neither a penalty nor a red card.
A couple of hours later, Mario Balotelli's reckless, dangerous challenge on Arsenal's Alex Song did not even prompt the award of a free-kick, mirroring events in the Championship on Friday when Danny Pugh's disgraceful lunge at Jem Karacan, in Leeds' defeat to Reading, ludicrously went unpunished. Chelsea's Raul Meireles received a greater sanction, a caution, for a phantom foul in Monday's draw with Fulham. It is, meanwhile, only a few weeks since QPR's phantom goal, when Clint Hill's header crossed the Bolton line by at least two feet.
So perhaps it was no surprise that Mark Hughes said managers are losing faith in referees. Maybe he was merely projecting his feelings onto others. And yet sympathy for the QPR manager should be mitigated: he was the man who, when Samba Diakite committed at least three bookable offences and a series of fouls against Fulham, said his Malian midfielder was "unlucky" to be dismissed, rather than benefiting from lenient officiating. As a serial complainant about decisions, whether right or wrong, how can he be a credible witness?
The same is true of most managers. Moyes and Roberto Martinez are perhaps the fairest, giving their views the most validity, so it was telling when the normally mild-mannered Spaniard used the word "disgusting" about events at Stamford Bridge and making it especially unfortunate that Wigan seem to suffer more than most from wrong calls.
But too many others have a self-serving philosophy, castigating officials and deflecting blame rather than admitting failures in their own recruitment, team selection or coaching. The referee is invariably a convenient scapegoat for men such as Sam Allardyce, who seems to believe his teams merit at least two penalties a game.
The most powerful and successful manager in the business, as ever, often sets the tone. Sir Alex Ferguson has systematically undermined officials for years, interrupted only by periods when he can be strangely reasonable. Others follow suit. Kenny Dalglish insisted on Saturday that he is not getting paranoid and then performed an uncanny impression of a man who is. The Liverpool manager, rather ignoring the unpunished foul Daniel Agger committed on Aston Villa's Samir Carruthers in his own box on Saturday, subsequently said: "They [referees] have to look at themselves and ensure they are seen to have integrity."
His chosen way, presumably, is to award Liverpool more penalties so he does not infer they are biased. They are the sort of comments that appeal to the conspiracy theorists, of whom there are far too many in most clubs' support. Fans of clubs, whether big or small, winning or losing, are encouraged by managers to believe neutrals are scheming against them. Perhaps it is an attempt to generate a siege mentality, but it is more of an abdication of responsibility for their own fortunes.
It creates a climate that makes it harder to separate legitimate criticism from unjustified whingeing. So, too, do the players who go to ground too easily and the managers who refuse to condemn them. The greater pace of the game, too, has helped make a difficult job still harder, while it is sadly inevitable that mistakes linger longer in the memory than correct decisions (how many recall the rightly-raised flag that denied the offside Danny Welbeck a goal at Old Trafford on Sunday?), helping cement an image of incompetence that, in most cases, is unfair.
It renders football a blame game and, as the point of this piece is not to victimise them, the erring officials have not been named. In any case, besides introducing goal-line technology, which only the terminally blinkered oppose, referees' critics are distinctly short of constructive suggestions. Hughes could not come up with any on Sunday.
But here are a few. Firstly, that the Professional Game Match Officials Board devotes more time to educating referees about the truly reprehensible, potentially leg-breaking challenges; on too many occasions, they have not brought the immediate dismissal they deserve and, ultimately, are more important than the penalty decisions that form the basis of most managerial moans. Secondly, that the Premier League, the Football League and the FA should combine to ensure that managers are asked to retract incorrect comments about officials; too many are slighted and have their reputations damaged for doing their job well. It was right that referees' chief Mike Riley apologised to Martinez, but managers should reciprocate when they are in the wrong.
And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, referees should mirror clubs' lead with their recruitment policy. Amid complaints about the standard, it should not be forgotten Howard Webb was awarded the last World Cup final. But the elite group lacks strength in depth, meaning some referees are promoted too quickly or over-exposed. Therefore, we should look abroad.
Communication is important, so a high standard of English is essential, but officials could still be imported from the rest of the British Isles, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Oceania, much of North America and large parts of Africa and Asia. Quality is more important than nationality. But just as significant is an environment where impartial officials are treated fairly.