No-one can accuse Neil Warnock of holding back. Now he has returned to the Premier League, the joker of Loftus Road has made a welcome habit of turning his post-match comments into a kind of surrealist theatre. Back-handed compliments about rival clubs, critique dressed up as praise for others' worldliness, and a searing sarcasm about officials' judgment delivered through a clenched-teeth smile: every performance has moments of magnificent drama.
But few can match his response to Joey Barton's sending off against Norwich. After the Rangers captain was dismissed following what was clearly a bit of play acting by Bradley Johnson, Warnock suggested this: "I don't think Joey would have gone down if it had been the other way around."
Really Neil? Then clearly your recall of events is diminishing with time. The rest of the footballing world knows only too well how Barton behaves in such circumstances. When, for instance, subject to the slightest of brushes to his cheek administered by Arsenal's Gervinho in a fixture earlier this season, he went down as if under sustained sniper fire, checking only through fingers clasped across his face that the referee was following his deception. As play-acting went, this was Tony-award winning stuff. It made Johnson's pitiful show look distinctly provincial; a poor man's rep regular to Barton's Ken Branagh. After that performance, Barton defended his actions with a shameless plea of professionalism.
"My job is to do the best for my team, not to keep Gervinho on the pitch," he said.
The implication was that all was fair on the pitch if undertaken in the wider service of your employer. Or, to borrow another of Warnock's musings, cheats prosper.
Oddly, when the roles were reversed, Barton had a very different gloss on events. Taking to his favoured means of communication, Twitter, he belittled Johnson by calling him "Boris" while suggesting that his fictional injury in the attempt to con the referee had been the actions of a cheat, a liar and a fraudster. Johnson, apparently, wasn't doing what was best for his team. He was deliberately defaming a fellow professional.
And yet, if you peel away the layers of hypocrisy from Barton's reaction, what he went on to say was not without merit. His point that referees had a tough job if players deliberately sought to mislead them was astute. As was his observation that the only way officials could pick their way properly through the subterfuge was with the use of technology. A quick glance at the television replays would have indicated Johnson had not been remotely discomforted by the close attentions of Barton's forehead. Once it has been checked on screen, the proper administration of justice could proceed: no punishment for Barton and a yellow card for feigning for Johnson.
It seems common sense. Never mind how much natural justice appears to have been served in this case, no matter how funny it was to see the biter bit, Barton has a point. The clamour for some sort of use of video evidence grows by the week. And Barton — the poacher turned gamekeeper — is as good a witness as to its necessity as anyone. After all, if anyone knows how to con a ref it is him.
Yet Joey need not hold his breath. The chances of a prompt adoption of technological assistance are minimal. It is not just Fifa who are reluctant to introduce a bit of help to refs. UEFA too have set themselves against the idea. Indeed, the normally sound Michel Platini has suggested that the mistakes that arise from referees somehow enhance the game.
"Football has based its popularity on injustices," he said recently. "You can remember them and talk about them in bars. You can talk about France versus Germany in 1982, the hand of Diego Maradona or that of Thierry Henry. The notoriety also comes from negative things in football."
Which is a bit like saying because the cops failed to prosecute Stephen Lawrence's killers 18 years ago, the British justice system has been inordinately strengthened.
Besides, as Barton pointed out, errors have much more significant consequence than the delivery of a subject for bar room debate. An incorrect decision in a crucial game could lead to the missed points which cost a championship or lead to relegation. And with that comes huge financial implications.
In his suggestion that the only way to prompt the authorities into change might be via the courts, he made an intriguing point: suing a ref for incompetence. Well, doctors have faced such sanction for a generation now, and no-one is suggesting the health service has been weakened as a result.
So go ahead, Joey and Neil, engage a brief now to test the system through the courts. If nothing else, the cross examination could prove comedy gold.
- Sports & Recreation