Ashley Cole is a difficult man to warm to. The friends of Ashley, like the friends of Heather Mills, are small isolated groups emerging only after dark. But it’s just possible that this tiresome berk may have sparked a revolution that will improve football. The man who nearly crashed his car in fury when told by his agent that Arsenal were offering him the risible sum of £55,000 a week, made himself even less likable, if that were possible, when he childishly turned his back last week on referee Mike Riley who was booking him for a life-threatening challenge on Spurs’ Alan Hutton. Reaction afterwards started off slowly; gathering momentum through phone-ins, the media and even a bizarrely worded apology from Cashley. The FA briefed they would stamp down on bad behaviour. Well, maybe.
But at the weekend, the Chelsea–Arsenal game was played as if it was a school lesson in good behaviour, while at Old Trafford referee Steve Bennett sent off Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano for a self-immolating piece of dissent, and won automatic entry to referee heaven. Could little Ashley’s appalling snottiness actually usher in a New Age of Respect?
Well, let’s hope so. Players ganging up on referees has always been as much a fixture of Premiership life as the ritual roasting in a Travelodge — and about as edifying. Many a sensitive soul must have woken up sweating and screaming in the dark hours at the memory of Roy Keane swearing at referee Andy d’Urso a few years back while at Man U. What happened then? Not much. And of course what has happened to Roy Keane is that he has become easily the most agreeable Premiership manager. Heaven knows what he’s like on the training pitch, but talking to the media after matches the Sunderland boss is unfailingly frank, engaging, witty, generous and pleasant. Much more so than the ‘Big Four’ managers.
It is quite baffling that behaviour which would qualify for several nights in the cells if carried out on the high street can go completely unpunished in a game. Most managers, Steve Coppell of Reading honourably excepted, are shockingly tolerant of their players. The routine slagging off of referees by managers after matches has to stop; and simple measures like only allowing captains to approach the referee in a game should be immediately enforced. Rugby refs are publicly miked up. Why not football? The TV companies would quickly tell the teams to clamp down on endless swearing. There is really no reason why footballers shouldn’t take the referee’s decision just like cricketers, rugby or basketball players. Maybe we will all owe Ashley a little vote of thanks.
Quite who shafted whom in Bernie Ecclestone’s decision to switch F1 coverage from ITV to the BBC is hard to tell, but you can’t help but feel a twinge for ITV. They spent a decade doggedly covering the Schumacher years, then bang, just as a fully grown British star revs on to the scene, and rule changes make the races absurdly exciting, they lose it to the BBC. Though I suppose that anything which arouses the Times’s Mary Ann Sieghart to fury has got to be a good thing.
There won’t be any Olympic boycott and there shouldn’t be. Nobody, least of all the Dalai Lama, wants to spoil the international party. But if Tibet protesters can disrupt the lighting of the flame in Olympia, you can’t wait to see what else they’ve got in mind. Good for them. You do wonder what would it cost the IOC to say something like, ‘We feel sure that China has heard world opinion on the issue of Tibet.’ What are the Chinese going to do, call the whole thing off?