A week football went mad

Philip Don, England's top official, discusses the dangers of inconsistency
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THE INCIDENTS last week in which a fan tried to attack Rodger Gifford at Blackburn after he sent off the Rovers goalkeeper, Tim Flowers, and awarded two penalties, and the criticism of David Elleray by Everton's Joe Royle, who saw two of his players sent off at Newcastle, have highlighted problems and pressures that are probably only going to get worse. I've been attacked myself, once physically and several times verbally, this season. At the Wimbledon-Newcastle game in November, when I sent off Vinnie Jones, I was walking off when someone came up and hit me over the head. I wasn't badly hurt and the police apprehended the culprit, but the fact is that at Selhurst Park the referees andplayers have to go off at one corner of the ground and you're exposed to the crowd. When I went back a few weeks later they had enclosed that area, but at most grounds there is nothing to stop people getting on to the pitch.

I hope we're not going to be forced to go back to the days of perimeter fencing. I want to keep things as they are, because once you start caging people in like animals, they start behaving like them. The fans have been given the opportunity to watch football in much more pleasant surroundings; it would be a pity to spoil that with fences.

In all of the controversy over refereeing this season, I've been aware that while a lot of people have been trying to make out that we in England are applying the Fifa directives more strictly than referees abroad, and that we are taking more names and sending off more players, this is not so. The figures show that our average number of cautions and sendings-off per match is lower than in many Continental countries. You'll always get exceptions, but generally there has been a good rapport between the players and the referees.

I've got sympathy with some of the teams because there is still not 100 per cent consistency among referees. There are still one or two referees in the Premiership who are doing it their own way and that's having a serious effect on the other referees who are carrying out the directives but then get accused of being insensitive. The Premiership and the FA must do everything in their power to change that situation and bring about consistency. That may mean disciplining referees in terms, possibly, of being taken off the list. They are written to at the moment, but that is as far as it goes. I think it may get to the stage where referees lose matches immediately afterwards, not the following month.

It is interesting that one of our most severe critics last week, Joe Royle, was recently managing in the Endsleigh League, where not all referees are independently assessed. There are a lot who curry favours with managers so that they get good club markings, whereas in the Premiership every game has an independent observer, so there's nothing to be gained by that.

We referees must share some of the blame for the present situation because in the past we have always tolerated the physical side of the game in this country. Yet within the laws we could have cut it out years ago. It's only been over the past 18 months or so that we've been reminded of our responsibilities. The players have had to change just as much as those referees who, in the past, were too lenient. Coaches have had to change, too, and, as a consequence, the players have become more skilful. That has certainly made the game more enjoyable for spectators.

But the longer this season goes on, the more we Premiership referees are going to be under pressure because the teams in danger of relegation (four this season) and those going for European places are going to be losing more players through suspension, and there are serious financial implications for the clubs. Over the final months of the season, every match will be like a Cup final.