Football: FA probes problem of tactical bookings



Aston Villa, and Ugo Ehiogu in particular, were last night sweating on the Association's reaction to the referee's report on Sunday's defeat at Liverpool. In the worst-case scenario, the England Under-21 defender could still miss the Coca-Cola Cup final through suspension.

Ehiogu assumed that the possibility of sitting out the Wembley date with Leeds on 24 March had disappeared with his caution for fouling Robbie Fowler. He believed the booking carried a four-point penalty, taking him through the 21-point threshold. That would have meant missing the visit of Middlesbrough on 19 March, but left him clear for the final.

However, Ehiogu learned yesterday that the referee, Keith Cooper, had cautioned him for "ungentlemanly conduct". It will be up to the FA's disciplinary commission to decide whether to impose a two or four-point penalty. If it is two, Ehiogu would be walking a disciplinary tightrope in the next two games.

Villa's Savo Milosevic was booked at Anfield and misses Middlesbrough rather than Wembley. Andy Townsend incurred a similar caution against Blackburn which left him free to face Leeds. Tommy Johnson is one point away from suspension.

The spate of cautions for players on the brink of a ban has prompted disquiet at the FA, which suspects some may be trying to guarantee their availability for certain games.

The FA's Steve Double said: "While we're against deliberate manipulation of the system, it is very hard to determine what is in a player's mind when he commits an offence. It's all a question of intent, and we would abhor any player who went out to seek a booking. But when an offence takes place, we can't ignore it."

The FA also reiterated its support for the domestic transfer system, despite the fact that fees for out-of-contract players who move between two countries were effectively abolished earlier in the day.

Uefa, the game's governing body in Europe, announced its acceptance of the ruling of the European Court of Justice in the wake of the Jean-Marc Bosman case, whereby the transfer system was no longer enforceable when players moved between the 15 European Union nations.

The FA's Clare Tomlinson said: "At the moment no one's challenging our system. We hope it remains that way because it's an excellent one, without which many smaller clubs might not survive." Transfers between clubs in the four home nations are unaffected; EU law regards them as a single state.

The Bosman fall-out has not curtailed Barry Fry's wheeler-dealing. He paid pounds 350,000 to make the York striker Paul Barnes his 52nd signing as Birmingham manager, Gary Bull joining York as part of the deal.

West Bromwich Albion have agreed a pounds 400,000 fee with Bolton for Richard Sneekes. The Dutch midfielder will be Albion's costliest capture in 10 years if he chooses them ahead of Ipswich and Grimsby.

Sunderland have signed the Liverpool and former England striker Paul Stewart on a free transfer, barely four years after his pounds 2.3m switch from Spurs. John Jensen, a pounds 1.1m Arsenal buy during the same summer, is set to rejoin Brondby in Denmark, also on a "free".

Middlesbrough are expecting a large gate for tomorrow night's reserve game by giving Branco a run-out. The Brazilian international, whose first taste of English football was against Everton in the Premiership on Saturday, now lines up against Leicester City in the Pontins League Second Division match. Season ticket holders will have free admission.