By leaning over backward to keep 11 players on the field, they have created an atmosphere in the EPL in which the thugs flourish. Tolerance rules, to the point where it has slopped over into outright indulgence.
An insidiously dangerous attitude, and one which surely contributed to the heinous "tackle" with which Martin Taylor shattered poor Eduardo's leg recently. An attitude that allowed far too many people in England to dismiss that foul with "it wasn't malicious, it was just one of those things that happen."
Maybe -- but those "things" are much more likely to happen when the rules against careless and reckless play, and the use of excessive force, are systematically ignored by the referees.
Knowing they're likely to get away with careless, even deliberate, fouls, the players can be forgiven for feeling that they, not the referee, are running the show. Inevitably they have lost respect for the referees.
And now the referees have decided that is enough is enough. A clampdown has been declared, and woe to abusive players. A clampdown that is at least three years late in arriving. Poll is the key figure again. Remember his tangle with Wayne Rooney back in 2005, when he allowed Rooney to get away with a prolonged torrent of abuse? Poll just stood there. No card.
Something similar happened recently, when Chelsea's Ashley Cole, having violently fouled an opponent, then flagrantly trashed referee Mike Riley -- who, again, just stood there. So what happened to Cole? Just a yellow card. And the Chelsea players who surrounded Reilly? Nothing. It is Liverpool and Javier Mascherano who will pay for that episode.
They were the first victims of the new clampdown (and quite probably the last, given how short-lived these things usually are). Mascherano wanted to talk to referee Steve Bennett. Not abusively, not by screaming and swearing at him. But Bennett quickly yellow-carded him -- the second yellow for Mascherano, so off he went. At that point - after his ejection, be it noted -- Mascherano lost it, and his behavior became inexcusable.
So Bennett suddenly represented the new zero-tolerance of the English referee. Suddenly. A big problem, that. It is very obviously unfair to change the "rules" in the middle of a season. This was even worse -- the clampdown started in the middle of one of the season's most crucial games. So, at worst, Mascherano miscalculated.
Question for Mr Bennett: when was the last time you sent off, or simply first-yellowed, a player for talking? Not swearing, mind you, simply talking? Try as I might, I cannot recall a case, in the EPL, of any player being carded by any referee for merely chatting. Which means that what Bennett did was really a hugechange in operating procedure. No wonder Mascherano claims he doesn't know why he was sent off!
It's ironic, because chatting is something English referees do a lot of. They use it as a way of avoiding having to give cards. Hence all those cosy little talks after a player has committed an egregious foul that would have got him banished in any other league.
But no mercy for Mascherano, no nice little chat ... out comes the card. It's worth repeating: Ashley Cole perpetrated a frighteningly vicious tackle and got only a yellow. He then blatantly mocked the referee, but that went unpunished.
Mascherano did nothing but yak -- but he was too persistent, or maybe Bennett didn't like his Argentine accent, who knows? And he got sent off.
Of course there's confusion in English refereeing, because the refs want it both ways. They want to be the players' best pal (all that sympathetic chatting) but at the same time they want respect from the players. They want to act out the referees' version of that English ideal for players: Hard but Fair. The refs want to be seen as Firm but Fair.
But they're not firm. They're feeble when it comes to dealing with rough play. And, in being feeble, they're anything but fair. Doing a sudden mid-season u-turn on the matter merely adds to the confusion and unfairness.
Ask Mascherano. He will be made a scapegoat, of course. But the trouble is with the refereeing. Only when the chatting stops and the cards start, will respect be shown. When English referees start brandishing cards with a dramatic, authoritarian flourish, instead of producing them apologetically with a limp gesture -- and when the new attitude is maintained -- then I'll begin to believe that something is actually changing in the English game.