Cautionary tale of men in a muddle

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The Independent Online
Sport would be less vulnerable to ugly outbreaks of discontent if its leading figures would acquire the wisdom to accept the sad but unavoidable truth that the sun never sets on the peevish umpire. At any given moment, an arbiter somewhere is imposing his will on a sporting contest and, in the process, proving to be a pain in the arse to all concerned.

It would help our hair-trigger tempered inhabitants of those subterranean cauldrons called football dug-outs if they could grasp even a handhold on the fact that the frustrations they experience are not confined to their little portion of the globe. The struggle is as universal as it is ancient and is not likely to be solved by reacting to referee's decisions with mouth-frothing, eye-bulging or any other manifestation of that histrionic indignation that is becoming tiresome.

There are worse things happening overseas, not least in America where baseball umpires have been threatening to strike in sympathy with one of their number. The Baltimore Orioles hitter Roberto Alomar was sent off for barging and spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck. After Alomar made a personal remark, Hirschbeck introduced an interesting new development in the relationship between those who apply the rules and those supposed to obey them by attacking the player in the dressing-room.

Considering the abuse that comes flying out of the dug-outs over here, we may be close to the first Eric Cantona-style lunge across the touchline by an avenging official. If Cantona can avoid serious punishment for such an act on the grounds of provocation, a referee would surely have a case for impassioned retaliation.

But there's enough trouble in the game without fermenting more and we trust that a more conciliatory note will be struck today when our top referees hold a seminar in the Midlands to discuss the lessons of the season so far. Representatives of the Manager's Association have been invited to talk about the growing gulf between the two factions.

On Friday, the Sunderland manager Peter Reid learned that he has been placed on a misconduct charge following his clash with the referee Paul Danson during a Premiership match at Arsenal last weekend. Danson sent off two Sunderland players and ordered the protesting Reid to spend the rest of the game in the stand.

Reid will be the fifth manager ordered to appear before the Football Association this season. Coventry City's Ron Atkinson and Gordon Strachan are awaiting a hearing after verbal exchanges with the referee, the same Mr Danson, when he failed to spot a handling offence that led to a Chelsea goal against them.

Graeme Souness of Southampton, Bryan Robson of Middlesbrough and Everton's Joe Royle are also due to appear before the beaks after a torrid start to the season that has seen 13 players sent off and 291 booked in 79 games. The dismissals are not far from the norm but the yellow cards are running at 3.7 a game, which is more than last season and a remarkable increase on the 1.3 average of 1993-94.

I have long cherished the opinion that the game can flourish only if everyone learns to respect the referee's decision no matter how flawed it might appear. I am now inclining to the view that we are experiencing an attempt to change the complexion of the game.

When the caution card was introduced, I fancied that the colour yellow was chosen because it was principally intended for the use of referees not brave enough to give a red card. But it has developed a potency of its own and, especially in the totting-up process in European and international competition, has become a bit of a nuisance.

Perhaps, it is time to supplement it with the introduction of the sin- bin, which is a more immediate and chastening punishment and a chance for referees to compromise. There is a nagging impression, however, that compromise is not uppermost in the mind of the modern referee, that he is being programmed for a harshness of control destined to debilitate the game by draining the full-bloodedness from it.

At the Welsh football awards dinner in Cardiff on Wednesday, the subject dominated the conversation of players like that old goalkeeper scourge, Trevor Ford. They spoke of referees of imposing character who commanded respect and could govern the temper of a game with a quiet and persuasive word in this ear or that.

We are no longer encouraging that breed of ref; a fact that was apparent from an excellent discussion on the subject in the Footballers' Football Show on Sky last week. Three recently retired referees, Roger Millford, Keith Cooper and John Lloyd, made a convincing case for the old style. Each was an appealing personality with a good record of achieving a rapport with players and managers.

It is significant that all three were anxious to remain in the game to coach and assess young referees. Yet all three have been ignored by the Premiership. They are used by the Nationwide League but not by our top competition. There are several others of that ilk who have been similarly overlooked.

Apparently, the game no longer wants individuals who apply the rules with a liberal measure of homespun wisdom. They favour men committed to the strict letter of the law and it is no coincidence that the two newest additions to the 19-strong list of Premiership referees are among those with the highest tally of yellow cards to their names.

There may be a parallel here with the way newly appointed corporals in the army used to rush around with a regimental sheen before settling down to a more humane approach. But the three ex-refs in the discussion were uneasy about the trend the game is witnessing at the moment.

Even the call for full-time, professional referees has an eerie sound to it. It conjures a mental picture of them spending the morning at fitness training and the afternoons reclining on loungers, being fed grapes by scantily clad females while the rigid interpretation of the rules is fed into their brains through their earphones

We all want a well-ordered game but we might have strong objections to having the hearts and soul whistled out of it.

Unlike politicians, sports editors don't have to declare their free trips but in the interests of truth I have to report that ours, along with several others, was taken by Carling to Portugal last week to visit the place where port comes from. Quite right, too. How can you edit sports pages without knowing how wine is fortified to make this splendid drink?

Among the other notables invited, without each other being aware of it, were two leading figures from the great rugby war. Imagine the excitement when two familiar faces arrived - Tony Hallett, the secretary of the Rugby Football Union, and Sir John Hall, the chairman of Newcastle RFC.

The sports editors, reacting excitedly to this chance of seeing sporting drama at first hand, watched intently as the atmosphere between the two thawed from its initial frostiness to a formal conviviality on a boat trip up the River Douro.

I don't know how much of the famous tipple had been sampled but at the farewell dinner my informant swears that he heard Hall say to Hallett: "Would you pass the sport, please?"

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