Ernie crosses fine line

ERNIE Merrick was right.

The match-day officiating in last week’s clash between Western Sydney and Newcastle at Spotless Stadium was shambolic.

FRUSTRATION: Jets coach Ernie Merrick spoke out last week after his team were on the wrong end of three dubious decisions. Picture: Marina Neil

FRUSTRATION: Jets coach Ernie Merrick spoke out last week after his team were on the wrong end of three dubious decisions. Picture: Marina Neil

By my reckoning, the Jets were entitled to claim a 3-0 moral victory.

They scored two cracking goals and had another overturned when Jason Hoffman was penalised, on the Video Assistant Referee’s advice, for the softest of fouls on Wanderers goalkeeper Vedran Janjetovic.

They also suffered at their own end of the pitch, when defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley was penalised twice and Wanderers scored both times from the spot.

Topor-Stanley’s first penalty was at worst a 50-50 call. He collided with an attacker but the contact appeared accidental, and there is no obligation for players to simply give way and allow their opponents a free shot on goal.

The second penalty, again a VAR decision, was quite simply embarrassing. After a split-second ricochet, the ball struck Topor-Stanley’s arm before he had time to blink, let alone block it intentionally.

Even Football Federation Australia conceded, in the weekly post-match review, that the decision was incorrect. So when full-time sounded, coach Merrick was understandably furious. 

Most agreed the Jets had been dudded, and what coach worth his salt would not speak out in favour of his players in similar circumstances?

Unfortunately for Merrick, he might well be the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ever since the VAR system was introduced last year, it has sparked constant grumbling from disgruntled coaches, both in the A-League and abroad.

Some, in particular Central Coast’s Paul Okon, have thrown multiple hissy fits after decisions they felt were unwarranted.

For several weeks, Sporting Declaration has been waiting for the inevitable outcome – FFA stepping in to sanction a coach or player for bringing the game into disrepute.

While it would be hypocritical to write an opinion-based column such as this and not support freedom of speech, there is a fine line between having a say and having a spray.

And in Merrick’s case, after labelling the aforementioned decisions “disgraceful” and “ridiculous”, he undoubtedly went a step too far, although it could be argued he was merely the latest in a long queue of line-crossers. It was out of character, because Ernie is normally as measured, honest and down-to-earth as anyone I have seen at a press conference.

He could perhaps have made his point just as effectively by admitting that the refereeing had disappointed and confused the Jets, and that he would be seeking clarification from FFA.

Instead his comments showed disrespect for the match officials, and that should never happen, for two reasons.

Firstly, if coaches and players are given carte blanche to publicly berate the whistle-blowers at professional level, what sort of example is this for juniors and amateur-league players?

If it becomes standard practice for every dubious decision to spark ridicule and abuse, who would want to be a referee?

Secondly, while there is not much the FFA can do about external and independent criticism – from fans and/or the media – it’s a different story when it comes from people who are, effectively, working within the organisation.

FFA gives every club a grant of more than $2 million each season. For that, the clubs and their employees are expected to meet certain standards.

It is the same, surely, in most workplaces. If I wrote a column lambasting colleagues working in other parts of Fairfax Media (which publishes the Newcastle Herald), I would presumably be promptly called to account.

Other sporting codes would be unlikely to tolerate comments such as Merrick’s last week.

If he was an NRL coach, he would almost certainly be facing a minimum fine of $10,000.

That the FFA have been so spineless in tackling the issue for so long is perhaps no surprise, especially when you consider the ingrained culture of soccer.

Players who concede a penalty or receive a yellow card will routinely give the referee a gobful. Coaches will harangue the linesmen, or even approach the ref at half-time to query decisions he has made.

Now they are having to deal with the added scrutiny of the VAR and, rather than accepting it will eventually improve the game, it seems most would prefer it was abandoned.

All of which brings us back to Merrick, who will learn next week what, if any, punishment he will receive for his unflattering assessment of the officials last week.

FFA finds itself in a no-win situation. If they fine him, the Jets will be entitled to point to previous incidents involving other coaches this season that were probably as bad, if not worse.

If they let him off with a reprimand, then they may as well declare it is open slather. Feel free to say whatever you want about the referees.

A suspended fine – and a general warning, putting all coaches on notice – would seem a reasonable compromise.

If that was the outcome, Merrick may actually have done the A-League a favour.