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Respect in danger of sinking before it starts

The new season brings with it a new 'initiative' and it is one that is aimed at stamping out disrespect in the game, particularly towards referees. However, the Respect campaign is being viewed with some trepidation as it tries to clean up football.

The opening weekend of the Football League and the Community Shield provided the stage for scrutiny and, unfortunately, there was little to suggest that anything will be much different in the coming season.

With calls to bring in a new initiative, FA chairman Lord Triesman has picked up the Respect campaign, which has already been tested in 20 leagues of various age limits across the country through a 12-week trial in grass-roots football, and has now arrived in the professional game.

The key ideas behind the initiative appear to be ensuring that only the captain addresses the referee; that spectators must stay behind a rope (irrelevant in professional football) and that all clubs must sign a code of conduct accepting the rules and agreeing to a set of punishments if the rules are broken.

Good ideas in principle, although the initiative is not without its limitations.

Most notably, the pilot scheme found that allowing only the captain to talk to the referee during a game didn't work. The application of having one player accountable for his team's reactions fails in practice and you only have to look back at the volatile nature of captains such as Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira to know that sometimes the man with the armband can be the worst offender.

Furthermore, the idea makes no room for captains who are away from the action. Goalkeepers like Oliver Kahn, Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon have all lead their sides in recent times and surely cannot be expected to run the length of the pitch every time a controversial incident occurs.

With more pressure on the officials to make examples of players, the hard-line stance that some will take at the start of the season may also result in some undeserved punishments. And, while everything is subject to a learning curve, the media attention that such incidents will attract will not be conducive to the overall impression left by the initiative.

However, various incidents raised the profile of dissent in the media last year, so it is easy to see why Respect has been called upon. Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was at the forefront of the tabloid talk after turning his back on referee Mike Riley against Tottenham and Liverpool's Javier Mascherano was put under scrutiny for his reaction to a second yellow card given by Steve Bennett.

And rightly so! Both players shamed the game with their petulant displays and something had to be brought in to change the way that players interact with officials.

So what can we expect to see in the new season? If the Community Shield is anything to go by it would appear that players will be punished when frustration at refereeing decisions over steps the mark, although the inconsistency of those decisions will still hinder any progress that the initiative achieves.

Portsmouth's Sylvain Distin was the first to fall victim to the new measures having returned on more than one occasion to berate the referee's assistant after a decision went against him. He was carded immediately, as was Man Utd defender Nemanja Vidic for the less high-profile crime of kicking the ball away.

However, the key point of note from the game was how referee Peter Walton attempted to control the action with the help of the captains. United skipper Gary Neville was called over to calm a dispute down between Lassana Diarra and John O'Shea, but even with Neville's input the tempers continued to flare and Walton never appeared to be fully in control.

The simple truth is that you will never be able to completely control the passion (for want of a better word) of football players. Even in a relatively non-competitive game, Argentine Carlos Tevez proved case in point on Sunday as his reaction to not being given a penalty should have seen him sent off. If not for his protestations, then for the push in the face of Herman Hreidarsson.

An incident completely missed by Walton and his assistants, a quiet word from Neville seemed to make no difference and if Respect is ever to work then the punishing of such actions must be far more consistent than they are currently.

Obviously the issue of disrespect towards officials has existed for many years but the precedents are not good. The 2001/02 season saw the introduction of the 10-yard rule, which punished dissent by moving a free-kick closer to offender's goal, although this was scrapped in 2005 after a four-year trial period proved unsuccessful.

Three years ago the Premier League launched 'Respect the ref, respect the game' to clamp down on abusive language, diving and mass confrontation. Yet incidents continued to occur.

Meanwhile, a sustained media campaign last season was not enough to stop the Cole and Mascherano incidents among a host of others. More worryingly though, managers were allowed to get away with criticising officials.

Most notable among them, Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlos Queiroz's vitriol after losing the FA Cup tie against Portsmouth that went unpunished - with the Scot having, only a month previously, called for greater respect for the men in black. Such blatant hypocrisy does not set the kind of example that this campaign needs. Arsene Wenger, Rafael Benitez and the rest of the Premier League's top managers are by no means absolved of blame and if Respect is to succeed then it has to begin at the very top.

With previous attempts to re-educate players about the way in which they conduct themselves on and off the pitch proving unsuccessful, the worry is that after a few high profile and controversial sendings off in the first half of the season, that the initiative sinks without a trace.

With fewer and fewer referees choosing to suffer the disrespect that they are forced to deal with every weekend, Respect will hope to make an impact unlike any of its predecessors. It remains to be seen whether the players can fully embrace the idea, but with high-profile Premier League games to come, the signs don't look good.

  • Any comments? Email Jon Carter


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