The best referees tend to be those who, by accident or design, betray the fewest signs of personality
Phil Dowd got one thing right at Anfield on Sunday. While the players of Liverpool and Manchester United were flailing away at each other in first-half stoppage time, the referee kept his distance from the ruck. He simply stood still, arms folded, expressionless. Let them get on with it, he seemed to be saying. When they've come to their senses, the appropriate action will be taken. I rather admired his refusal to get involved, as others might have been tempted to do, by trying to separate individual combatants.
This was the aftermath of the incident involving Rafael da Silva, United's combustible 20-year-old right-back, who had thrown himself at Lucas Leiva, his fellow Brazilian, with a challenge that forced the Liverpool midfielder to take evasive action or risk losing a limb. Rafael's temper had clearly been inflamed by Jamie Carragher's reckless tackle that had left a gash on Nani's shin three minutes earlier.
Dowd should probably have dismissed Carragher. A look at a replay revealed that the Englishman was trying to win the ball, but a similar defence was erected for Martin Taylor and Ryan Shawcross after their leg-breaking tackles on Eduardo da Silva and Aaron Ramsey.
The referee probably had Carragher's tackle in his mind, and his own reaction to it, when he decided not to punish Rafael with anything more than another caution. In a tense match, he was lucky that the outbreak of hostilities came just before he was able to blow for the interval.
The 48-year-old from Staffordshire makes mistakes, like all human beings, but he helps himself by being personally unobtrusive. That is where the more youthful Mark Clattenburg, with his Hoxton fin and his willingness to put a chummy arm around Wayne Rooney's shoulders, handicaps himself. The best referees tend to be those who, by accident or design, betray the fewest signs of "personality" and do not feel the need to treat famous players like personal friends.
I had this argument with an esteemed colleague in what used to be Anfield's boot room on Sunday. He is a man with long personal experience of refereeing and acts as a mentor to young officials. He believes that an extrovert personality is a good thing for a referee, since it will help him (or her) stand up to players in moments of pressure. I think the opposite, that such a personality can get in the way of clear thinking when it comes to making big decisions. It was not a bald head or a piercing glare that lent Pierluigi Collina authority and made him the finest referee of the modern era. There was nothing vain or extrovert about him. It was the quality of his decision-making, pure and simple, that won the Italian the respect of the biggest players of his day. Howard Webb is not quite at that level but he was invited to referee last summer's World Cup final because he is the closest thing we currently have to another Collina.
There were plenty of mistakes from officials last weekend, leading to much debate, but England is not alone there. France's elite referees tried to delay the kick-off of all last weekend's first division matches as a plea for greater respect from players and coaches, but found themselves outflanked by their governing body, who promoted a bunch of lower-league officials to replace them, apparently with no discernible loss of quality.
Nevertheless, officials deserve our sympathetic consideration. The speed at which modern players move and at which today's lighter ball travels over longer distances, the current ambivalence about physical contact in the tackle and the immeasurably greater scrutiny to which they are subjected by the mass media are among the factors combining to render their job far more difficult than that of their predecessors.
What might help them would be the abolition of the technical area and the banishing of managers and coaches to a safe distance from the touchline – and, in the case of Glasgow's Old Firm matches, from each other. Television would be unhappy to give up the constant parade of enraged men in suits, but such a step could serve to lower the temperature in which tough decisions have to be made.
Jenson Button says he intends to postpone fatherhood until after his retirement from Formula One, believing that the presence of a pram in the hall would be a deterrent to taking the sort of risks expected of a racing driver. It's a pity that old Enzo Ferrari isn't still alive to applaud him, or offer him a job.
Even marriage slowed a driver down, according to Ferrari, who was less than delighted when Peter Collins, his young English protégé, got himself hitched to an American actress. Like Button, Collins was a debonair young man who had earned Ferrari's favour not just by winning races but by putting the Scuderia ahead of his own interests. In a position to win the world championship himself at Monza in 1956, he handed his car over to Juan Manuel Fangio, his team leader, whose own machine had broken.
Ferrari appreciated that. But a year later he did not join the celebrations when Collins married Louise King. The Old Man liked his drivers to tell him stories about their girlfriends, not about their wives and children.
I don't suppose Jimmy Bullard can expect, at the age of 32, a repeat of the call he received from Fabio Capello to cover for the absence of bigger names from England's midfield during the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup. But Bullard remains a people's favourite, and his two goals on Saturday against Cardiff City for Ipswich Town, whom he joined on loan from Hull City in January, showed that he is going to be providing entertainment and excitement for some time to come – and even giving value for whatever proportion of his £45,000-a-week salary, negotiated when Hull were in the top flight, that Ipswich are contributing.
Alberto Contador's Tour of Murcia victory at the weekend was his first since learning in January that he had been cleared by the Spanish cycling federation of doping charges after traces of clenbuterol were found in samples given during last year's Tour de France. Spain's prime minister, who demanded his exoneration, will be delighted. Some of the rest of us might be tempering our jubilation.