Do I not like that . . . Game losing its bite: Norman Hunter, the former England defender, says that football's new rules put referees in a spot

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The Independent Online
IWAS worried about the crackdown on the tackle from behind as soon as it was announced. The problem is it all comes down to one man's interpretation.

I can see what the authorities are trying to do, and obviously it's right to outlaw the sort of tackle in which thedefender just clatters into the back of his opponent - the one that lets him know you're there, as we'd have said in my day. But what about the tackle in which you're genuinely going for the ball? Say it's your first tackle of the game, and you've only got to mis- time it slightly and you could be sent off. That can't be right. And you have to remember the pace the game is played at nowadays. Mistakes are bound to happen.

Tackling is an art form - just as much a part of the game as any of the other skills. And I think that if the physical side of the game gets lost, then you really are in trouble. Football is a physical game. There's nothing better than a good challenge, a good 50-50 ball. You have to have that sort of competitive edge or the game loses something vital.

It was clear during the World Cup this summer how difficult the players were finding it. There were some silly games when the referees went way over the top. On the whole, though, I thought the players coped remarkably well. I was surprised there weren't more games that ended nine-a-side. But there were some when it was obvious the players were frightened to tackle. And it made an absolute nonsense of it. It would be terrible if we found the English game being played like that.

You have to think about this from the referee's point of view as well. Referees are under more pressure than ever nowadays, what with assessors marking their performances as well as having to think about the match itself. The game has speeded up so much since I was playing, and there is so much more at stake. To keep up with everything and make the right decisions is harder than ever. And now the Fifa changes have added even more pressure. As far as I can see, they've just created more difficulties for referees.

What's happened is that the referee is having his discretion taken away from him. In my day, the best referees knew what was fair and what wasn't and acted accordingly. They weren't having to think about the latest ruling from Fifa.

With the greater responsibility, referees could struggle to cope. As a result I suspect that what we may see is a strict interpretation of the rules for the first two or three months of the season and then an easing-off. But whatever happens I envisage some referees losing control completely and that would be disastrous.

One solution would be to give more power to linesmen. I'd welcome that. They should be given much greater say in the decision process, to make the referee's job a bit easier. Goodness knows, he could do with all the help he can get. It's something that happens in rugby league, and I think football could learn from that.

Then there are the offside law changes. I know the authorities are trying to reduce the number of offsides, to try to make the game flow, but there is a limit to it. The law change about active and passive parts of the field is so open to misinterpretation. And if there's any doubt in the situation, it can't be right that the attacking player gets the benefit of it. As far as I'm concerned if you're in an offside position you're offside, and that's that.

You have to think about which players are going to be most affected by these changes. It's the defenders. I may be speaking as an ex-defender, but you ask any manager what the basis of a successful side is and they'll all give you the same answer - a solid defence. Now you're going to find defenders being sent off much more often than before, and everything a team is working for could fall apart.

The point about a football team is that it's made up of different types of players and different types of skills. The beauty is in the variety. Goalscorers, wingers, creators in midfield, plus your men at the back. My fear is that if you tinker with the laws too much you threaten the whole character of the game itself.

(Photograph omitted)

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