Football: Let common sense guide our referees

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY BEFORE Panathinaikos and Ajax contested the 1971 European Cup final at Wembley I was approached in Athens by two men of clearly dubious character who held the belief that British referees were not sure to be above corruption.

Made on the pretext of being able to supply information about an attempted betting coup, their visit to my hotel room concerned the Wolverhampton referee Jack Taylor, who was given the final when Jim Finney was forced to step down after a road accident.

In perspiring bulk and sinister manner, one of the men bore resemblance to the late film actor Sydney Greenstreet. "I think you might be able to tell us something about this Taylor," he said. "Not as hard as he looks," I replied, "but a good referee and fair."

The fat man smiled. "I don't think you understand ," he said, though I had his drift all right. "Look," I replied, "English referees aren't all perfect. There's good and bad, but I've never come across anything to cast doubt on their integrity."

Nothing since then either. However, one of the questions before English football, in many minds the most thorny, is what can be done to bring about better understanding between referees and players.

Modern tensions are no excuse for the dissent that has become shamefully common- place, but it is time that referees were encouraged to show more common sense than Fifa's prissy interpretation of the laws presently allows.

If not much of a case could be made out for the remarks Alex Ferguson and Martin Edwards passed about David Elleray last week after Manchester United were held to a 2-2 draw by Liverpool at Anfield, their anger over the dismissal of Denis Irwin was understandable.

The other night on television Frank McLintock pointed out that the 17 cautions he received spanned 19 years of top-class football. "I imagine that I would now get that many in a season," he said.

McLintock was speaking shortly after Arsenal's defeat by Leeds United and the subsequent complaint of Arsene Wenger that his team's performance suffered from cautions issued in the first half to Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira.

Some football people I have since spoken to saw those cautions as further examples of the inconsistency that enrages managers and players. If that was his standard at that time of the game the referee (Gary Willard) should also have punished a couple of Leeds players, but he let them get away with it.

Of course, the pace of the game today often makes it difficult to arrive at an accurate conclusion, but often fouls are more to do with bad timing than malice. Equally, it can be argued that tackling has become a lost art since the inauguration of Fifa's campaign against aggressive acts of dispossession.

Time was when the game policed itself, when there were enough genuinely hard men around to ensure that events on the field were kept in pretty good order without the referee's intervention. Retribution was usually swift, invariably painful and obscured from the public's attention. "Every winger who comes up here is sure to go home with gravel rash," the old Bolton and England full-back Tommy Banks was fond of saying.

Loudly Fifa insists that this sort of thing is bad for the game and no way to build for the future. So referees are obliged to deal with pettiness, unseemly scuffles that would quickly be settled by a half decent featherweight while taking little or no action over the shirt-pulling that was a blight on last summer's World Cup finals and has since spread to English football.

One thing to bear in mind is that the laws of the game are interpreted by the International Board, whose five members include one from each of the four British associations. No wonder, then, that the Board's pronouncements appear to be more vigorously applied here than in any other country.

A pretty safe bet is that the response of any Board member to that conclusion would be, "I do not care to answer the question."