Stoke City boss Tony Pulis became the third manager to fall foul of FA rule E3 after complimenting referee Howard Webb, prior to his sides FA Cup semi-final with Bolton. The rule is in place to stop managers discussing the appointment of a certain referee before a match, whatever is said.
The best example of the use of this rule was when Sir Alex Ferguson was charged with improper conduct and given a five match touchline ban following his comments about Martin Atkinson prior to Manchester United’s match away at Chelsea. In this instance Ferguson shared his feelings that in this same fixture last season, the very same referee had made some poor decisions against his team. For many it is understandable that the FA would punish him for comments such as this, as this could clearly be seen as undermining the position of the FA and trying to sway Atkinson’s decisions on the night.
For the FA to cite this same rule when managers make positive comments about a referee for many is a strange decision. Both Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti praised the appointment of Webb before the recent Old Trafford fixture, both feeling he has the necessary qualities to make him the best referee in the country. For many this is an accurate statement. Webb can handle the big occasion and he can handle the players. As far as English referees have faired over the last decade or so, Webb is the closest there has come to someone in the mould of Pierluigi Collina. He seems to bring an air of authority to proceedings and is calm in the face of big decisions.
Ferguson and Ancelotti praising his appointment is in effect a compliment of the FA. Something which is very scarce coming from the United manager especially and something which for many should simply have been left alone. Webb may often use common sense when refereeing, but for many it may appear that the FA is without much common sense on this issue. There may be some argument that the managers were trying to influence Webb with their comments, but the FA should be aware of his ability as a referee and know that he is unlikely to be pay attention to these comments, yet alone be influenced by them.
At a time when the FA appears in turmoil and relations with certain managers are at an all time low it is curious that they feel it necessary to exert their authority in this manner. The question should also be posed that if they were fully committed to upholding rule E3, then why have the three managers concerned been warned, but not handed any form of serious punishment? If the FA is taking a hard line on any comments about officials then it should arguably be the case that the same punishments should apply across the board regardless of whether the comments are positive or negative.
The Respect campaign is likely to be at the heart of this issue, but for the managers concerned it may be difficult to see where the disrespect is in praising someone for their qualities. They knew they were in breach of the rules when the comments were made, but could hardly have expected any reprimand. Decisions like this seem to increase the void between the FA and the top Premier League clubs. If this void is to close it seems that a little common sense may need to be used on both sides.