Few would argue that the FA’s flagship respect campaign has been anything but an unmitigated disaster. With the typical series of high profile mistakes leading to emotional ravings and managers questioning the ability of referees, levels of abuse at grass roots levels are said to have substantially increased. Officials would be forgiven for wondering whether the seven letters printed in white and emblazoned on players’ shirts were simply a new tag line for the latest commercial than the embodiment of a campaign to protect them.
Not only has the FA witnessed their main project become something of a joke, but their track record has been poor where it comes to taking major decisions. From the farce that surrounded McClaren’s appointment as England boss to their bottling of the Carlos Tevez saga that saw West Ham send Sheffield United down at the cost of 5.5 million pounds.
And so it was that the FA were presented with their newest conundrum as an adrenaline racing, fist pumping Wayne Rooney saw fit to unleash a tirade of obscenities at a TV camera in a match being watched by millions. Having faced a storm of criticism after allowing Rooney to escape punishment for what is best described as an assault on Wigan’s James McCarthy a month earlier, this incident was in many ways a test of the FA’s credibility as a governing body.
That is why the decision to hand Rooney a two match ban was such a momentous one. With the semi-final of the FA cup to come against Manchester City a fine would have been by far the easiest option for the FA, not wanting to cause controversy or detract from the spectacle. Their decision to slap a two match ban on Rooney hopefully signals a change in attitude from the FA that they intend to get tough on players who really step out of line.
If the FA is serious about eliminating the parts of the game that are so distasteful (diving being one such example) then this is the way it needs to go, especially if it wants its respect campaign to be anything more than a public relations exercise. A fine to multi-millionaire players and managers is about as intimidating as the prospect of facing Sol Campbell in the hundred metres.
The punishment meted out to Ferguson is testament to this after he “feared the worst” following Martin Atkinson’s appointment as referee for United’s trip to Chelsea last month. Having repeatedly fined the likes of Steve Bruce, David Moyes and of course Ferguson himself, Bernstein and his men appear to have finally realised that this approach simply does not work.
There is no doubt that the treatment handed out to Ferguson and Rooney is harsh by both current standards and past precedence. However if they are serious about protecting the integrity of match officials and of making footballers think twice about the way they conduct themselves on the pitch, then this is the way they need to go rather than simply handing out warnings. As they say, actions speak louder than words.