IT was Chris Wilder who first cried about my team taking ‘drinks breaks’ during our 2-1 win at his Kassam Stadium back in our League Two days. His cry was loud. His inference was that my players were feigning injury to create breaks in play. He seemed to want to moan to anyone who would listen. Rather powerfully, that included the Referees Association whom he named afterwards as a body he intended to contact. How dare little Stevenage win in Oxford United’s back yard?!
The matter was investigated, but put to bed because it was all nonsense. My players were simply encouraged to focus on their fuelling during a break in play.
Whether it is created by an injury to our player or an opposition player, our sports science staff have always been encouraged to implement an in-game fuelling strategy. We made sure that all our players came across and fuelled at times when injuries occurred. Not by choice. En masse, by requirement.
I was advised to change the way I did things by the powers-that-be to overcome this matter. It was believed to be a better strategy to leave drinks around the pitch so there was no perception of a tactical meeting. Frankly, we don’t feel comfortable leaving fuels laying loose, unguarded. But we went down that road to show willing.
But the situation rumbled on because managers saw advantage to themselves in pointing to us as ‘baddies’. It got to a point where I had to complain about dangerous prejudice creeping into refereeing.
My player, John Mousinho, was injured in a challenge at Hartlepool. The referee forced Mousinho to walk off the pitch, not believing he was injured. Mous had broken his foot and we believe that the referee’s decision to make him walk almost certainly worsened the injury. I was disgusted at the time and spoke to the referee’s manager. He agreed that this was wrong. It is not a referee’s place to base his opinion of my team on what Chris Wilder once said and what other managers sometimes choose to repeat in order to try and gain an advantage over us.
Just because Stevenage cannot make the PR noise of the bigger clubs does not mean that they deserve unfair treatment. And certainly their players do not deserve to be put at risk.
Referees should turn up to referee the game in front of them, applying the laws in a fair way according to what they see.
Well, on Tuesday night, this dreadful prejudice re-surfaced. During the second half of our game against Orient, our right winger Fil Morais was injured in a challenge while defending our far post. The contact to his leg is clearly visible on the footage.
While my physio was treating Fil on the pitch, there is footage of him becoming animated and arguing with the referee. Under pressure from Orient’s players, the referee had told my physio that he knew what ‘you lot’ are like; that he’d refereed us many times before; and he asked if it was the 30th or 33rd minute we went down?
My physio was astonished and angry and he reacted. Rightly so. I cannot accept that from a referee. It isn’t right that my physio is put under pressure from a ref to take a player off the pitch while he is examining an injury. It isn’t right that the ref then delayed Fil’s access back onto the pitch, seemingly out of retribution. There is no way that a referee can say those kind of things and be in a fair and objective frame of mind to officiate.
I sent 11 clips of that game on Tuesday across to the referees’ boss on Friday. I asked him why we had suffered a red card for a ‘foul’ (there is debate about whether Roarie Deacon touched the ball or whether Shaun Batt fell in a challenge or slipped three yards after it) some 30 yards from my goal and why Orient had not received a red card following a handball that blocked a goalbound shot 12 yards out that led to a penalty being given to us. To his credit, no excuses were made. He accepted some poor decisions had been made.
What I don’t like is that the decisions were made against the background of the attitude that the ref expressed to my physio.
Refereeing is a pressurised job and an unenviable one. I am 100 per cent behind the need for managers and players to respect officials. But officials do affect our lives. Roarie Deacon will lose wages because of his dismissal. John Mousinho lost career time. Teams lose vital bonuses through decisions. Managers lose jobs. It isn’t a game to me when I hear a referee making a flippant comment to my physio. It is my career, my players’ safety and my club’s future that he is playing around with.
The least an official can do is deal with every game in a fair frame of mind. If they cannot do that they should not pick up the whistle.
TOUGH BANTER IS TEST OF YOUR RESOLVE
With the situation at the Miami Dolphins rumbling on, there has been a lot of talk this week about the difference between bullying and banter.
Now, of course, there are outright and obvious cases of pure wrong; those are not my subject matter here.
I just hope that we aren’t going to end up in a situation where the humour in a football dressing room is lost or diminished.
Honestly, if I were to look back at my 29 years in a football dressing room, I could point to so many times where I could say I have been ‘bullied’. One hundred per cent.
I never would say it, but I easily could. All sorts of stuff. But those moments made me. They tested me. They strengthened my character. They deepened my resolve. They challenged me. They made me grow up. They made me look in the mirror.
Bullying and banter are really close cousins in my opinion.
Please let’s keep our sense of humour in football and in life and not become so scared of words that we lose the unrivalled spirit of camaraderie that a dressing room creates.
Good blokes having a laugh together and throwing around some good-natured banter should never be allowed to be seen as wrong.
If honesty means banter causes offence let’s be measured in our reactions.
Because there is a great upside to a fun environment in which people can feel at home together. And you won’t get that if people live in fear.
HOW TO GIVE MANAGERS MORE TIME? DEDUCT POINTS FOR SACKINGS!
On the opening day of this season, we used a set piece that my teams have scored good goals from over the years.
We got it wrong, we were counter attacked and we conceded a goal. We suffered disadvantage rather than benefitting from advantage.
That is what happens when a new team is coming together and learning new ways and new ideas.
Around the country, managers don’t get given time to teach players their ways even though we all know that the learning curve exists. It is a real shame.
It would be interesting if an in-season change of manager was accompanied by a ten-point penalty. I wonder how many clubs would give their man a little longer and see benefits from doing that? I suspect many!