Football Libero: Game of two refs

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The Independent Online
On three occasions during the first half of the Arsenal v Manchester United match in midweek, the referee Martin Bodenham got in the way of passing movements. In the second, he was a long way behind play when Ian Wright launched two feet at Peter Schmeichel, probably having slowed, aware of the offside that a linesman had awarded. And this was one of Britain's best officials going about his overworked trade.

Several so-called solutions to the question of improving refereeing standards have been advanced and some implemented; younger officials, ex-players in control, professional referees. None addresses the real issue, however, of the pace of the modern game outstripping the poor old ref, no matter how youthful, fit and professional he or she is. As any coach should point out to youngsters learning the game, the ball always moves faster than any person can.

It seems to this column - as officials come under more scrutiny and duress to implement the laws more firmly, thus improving the game - that the time has come to re-examine an idea that might solve much: the two-referee system.

Only Michael Caine may know this, but the game originally began with two umpires and a referee, who sat on the half-way line to adjudicate in disputes. The umpires then became linesmen when referees complained they were under-employed. In 1935, the FA experimented with a system of two referees and no linesman in a friendly match. It was found that offside decisions were given with "a greater degree of accuracy". Though eight out of nine of the Football League's management committee supported the idea, the League's annual meeting voted 31-18 against.

Nothing more happened until the 1960s when an FA man, Col Pip Newton, resurrected the idea and a series of games were played. Under his system of two referees patrolling the length of the pitch but keeping to their own side, it was discovered that offside decisions were more accurate - and these days, with the "level" rule and the swift timing of forward runs, linesmen cannot judge properly the ball being played and the position of the player. One unexpected benefit was that there were one-third fewer throw-ins, thus speeding up the game's flow.

Of "modern" football then, Col Newton wrote: "The principal change is that the tactic of possession has become even more dominant which, added to the fact that the game has become faster, makes it even more difficult for the referee to penetrate on a diagonal across the flood of players without interrupting their pattern of play or spending a great deal of time trying to avoid the ball or players.

"Additionally, he is forced, because of the speed of the game, to run down the centre of the field and in consequence more frequently fails to see his linesmen's flags with the attendant result that the particular portion of the crowd affected quickly explodes in anger." Col Newton also noted that stricter interpretation of the laws even then initially had a "cleansing" effect but mostly resulted in a disciplinary backlog.

Plus ca change, as the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, an advocate of the system, might say. "For one referee to keep concentration for 90 minutes at such a quick pace is difficult," he told me. "The pressure is never relieved. As human beings, they need the rest that having two referees would bring."

M Wenger would, though, have a referee in each half, which differs from the plan of Col Newton, who also advocated "goal-cum-touch judges" at either end. We might then avoid the was-it-a-goal problems of the World Cup final, he noted shortly after 1966.

Of course, the system has potential drawbacks - consistency of approach from one referee to another being one - but surely it is again worth investigation by the powers that be. As a result, many of the other mooted modifications to the rules to make it a better game might not be needed.

A Vin or lose situation

I WANTED to speak to Vinnie Jones. "You need to discuss it with my agent," he said, when I reached him at Wimbledon's training ground. He offered me the man's mobile telephone number. "Do you have a mobile I can contact you on?" I asked Vinnie. "No, I'm not giving it out," he said. Duly, I telephoned the mobile number he had read out. "Ullo?" came a voice. "Is that Vinnie Jones's agent?" I asked. "No, it's Vinnie. Who's that?" the voice replied.

WE hate to say that we told you so, but we told you so. Over a month ago this column noted the use of a laser beam trained on a player during an Aston Villa match and witnessed it again during the Leicester City v Wimbledon Coca-Cola Cup tie in midweek when Vinnie Jones was the target. To his credit, a Leicester steward noted the culprit and confiscated the device. We can only hope other clubs are as clued-up about this dangerous instrument.

THE attendant press were growing a trifle impatient at Arsenal's training headquarters last week, having been told the players were still out, when Lee Dixon appeared. "Have you stretched yet, Lee?" wondered the Arsenal PR, Clare Tomlinson. "No," said someone, "he's still as small as he always was."