An FA source revealed last night: "We are extremely worried about the proliferation of red and yellow cards, and particularly concerned by the comparison with Europe and other countries. It's not a problem elsewhere, as far as we can establish."
After only three months of the season, the sendings-off by the referee David Elleray of Arsenal's Fredrik Ljungberg and Martin Keown in last Sunday's north London derby took the tally of red cards issued in Premiership games to 39. During the whole of last season there were 72 dismissals in the top flight. At the current rate, with five months of the season remaining, there is every prospect of the number rising to more than 100. There have also been 551 yellow cards in the same period.
The source added: "If you watch a Premiership game on Saturday and then, say, an Italian game on Sunday, or a Champions' League game, you'll see the difference. It's inevitable that we're asking, `What is going on here?' This is an important issue and we will be treating it as a priority."
The fact that foreign referees are not, apparently, respon-ding so expeditiously to illegal challenges tends to give the lie to the much-argued view that officials are utterly hamstrung by Fifa regulations. Anyone who has watched Champions' League matches this season will realise there is ample scope for discretion. Though some players give officials little option in their decisions - how many do you still see vehemently expressing their innocence after being cautioned for the now-outlawed tackle from behind? - there are also too many yellow cards brandished for challenges which should be punished by no more than a foul.
John Barnwell, chief executive of the League Managers' Association, who bears the brunt of his members' protestations about alleged poor refereeing, believes the issue is all about judgement. "If you analyse it you'll find that often when a player has been sent off for two bookables, one is for a minor infringement," he said. "That's what infuriates, that's what gets everybody's temper up. The punishment does not fit the crime.
"Take a player like Stanley Matthews, who jinked with the ball and held the ball out to you, almost saying `Come and get it'. You made a lunge, but it's gone and you took his legs away. You haven't deliberately tried to kick him, have you? He's tricked you. That's a free-kick. Well, it used to be, but today it's also a yellow card, and that cannot be right.
"Then there's a player who surges past you and you scythe him down. That should be a yellow card. The problem is they're giving yellows for both. It's not just the referees. Fifa have a lot to answer for; they bring in rules without consulting people in the game. But referees and players have to live with that and managers must handle the consequences."
In general, they have. The protests of managers - apart from Aston Villa's John Gregory - have been in inverse proportion to the plethora of reds. "Emotions do run high immediately after a game and the majority of managers handle it exceptionally well," said Barnwell. "In fact, I spoke to Peter Reid, one of our more volatile members, this week and he's been excellent this season. There's been a sea change with Peter; he recognises that we don't make any ground by inflaming the situation. Vialli is also a great example to all managers by the way he's handling himself."
Barnwell admitted that strong words have been necessary at certain clubs. "I've said to various managers over a period of time, `If you don't start to behave in a more responsible manner, the FA will turn round and say you can't control these people. We're going to have to control the club itself', and go to the chairman." In Arsenal's case that would not be necessary, with both manager and chairman all too aware that current standards are not befitting of a club of their stature. The two sendings-off against Tottenham brought to 26 the number of players they have had dismissed under the Frenchman's rule. Last week, Wenger was called to discuss the club's record with the board. Afterwards, Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood admitted: "I don't think we are a dirty team but there is no doubt that we are undisciplined. There is no magic wand that can be waved to stop people acting stupidly."
Barnwell respects the fact that Wenger will continue to protect his players publicly. "Anyone who doesn't understand that doesn't live in the real world," he said. "However, what Arsene says privately might be totally different. They do feel a little bit isolated and persecuted at the moment, although I wouldn't say they're being unfairly treated."
There have been suggestions that Arsenal may be docked points, but the FA source said: "We monitor these things regularly, but Christmas, about half-way, is a natural point at which to assess it. We're keeping an eye on the situation."Reuse content