Football in this country has not benefited but suffered from the interpretation of laws that Fifa ordered for the 1994 World Cup

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The Independent Online
Most of my younger colleagues, and even some older brethren who really should know better, never let any light fall on the fact that footballers of 20 and more years ago were generally tougher than the present crop of heroes.

Nobody has to take my word for this because proof is available weekly on the Sky Gold programme, Bobby Charlton's Scrapbook. The matches are in black and white but the colour blue, as in bruises, is never difficult to imagine.

The most recent offering featured Leeds United, circa 1970, and their Republic of Ireland international, John Giles, who was unquestionably one of the most skilful and combative inside-forwards of his generation. When questioned by the programme's veteran presenter, Dickie Davis, and in common with all previous guests, Giles agreed immediately that the tackling was more hurtful in his time, and players had not yet developed the tiresome modern habit of going down as though picked off by a sniper.

Another point both Charlton and Giles made was that players were rarely booked - never mind sent off - which is the risk all of them today appear to be taking. "We did some bad things," Giles admitted, "but the unwritten rule was that you took knocks and got on with it."

A personal view, and no excuse is offered for returning to a recent theme, is that football in this country has not benefited but suffered from the interpretation of the laws that the governing body of world football, Fifa, ordered for the 1994 World Cup finals. The result is that we have a version of the game quite a long way from what its inventors intended. Putting it bluntly, players are now frightened to tackle. The slightest mistake in application and timing leads to a yellow card and thus an inhibited performance. Having been introduced to this quite ludicrous restriction the audience reacts accordingly.

I will not bore you with the number of times I have recently discussed this with managers in the Premier and Endsleigh Leagues, but all agree that the approach demanded of referees by the four British associations, one that relates to retaining historical majority power as law-makers on the International Board, is to the game's long-term detriment.

The possibility that players on the brink of suspension are instructed to invite cautions - the "tactical booking" implied this week by an official of the Football Association - so they will be available for important matches further up the line should not surprise anyone.

Confidence in referees is now running at such a low ebb that some clubs run thorough checks on their records. "It's important to know what we can expect," I was told this week. "For example, referees not far from retirement are less likely to go by the book and take notice of assessors than one who is trying to make an impression. We note how many yellow cards they've handed out, the number of dismissals. It's not a case of what we can get away with but who is going to give the players a fair crack of the whip."

It does not take much in the way of observation to realise that Eric Cantona, doubtless on the advice of Alex Ferguson, has hardly made a tackle since returning from suspension. Why risk the hair-trigger wrath of referees by attempting something you are not very good at is probably the instruction Manchester United's manager gave sensibly to the naturally aggressive Frenchman.

Going a little deeper into this, the difficulties and comparative lack of success experienced by British attackers when performing internationally is not mysterious. Barring the best teams, and despite what many of today's amateur tacticians would have us believe, defensive play in the Premier League is pretty abysmal. The fear of being booked discourages defenders from marking properly and leads them into taking up false positions.

There are technical considerations but tackling is mainly about attitude, "wanting the ball" as I remember an old mentor saying. When bureaucratic pedantry is employed to suppress that desire there is a substantial case for overhauling the system.

An on-going truth about football is that there will always be people unhappy with the way things are proceeding. Trouble is that when it comes to the way referees are ordered to go about their work there are more and more of them.

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