Football: LIBERO: Time for crisis talks on referees

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FIND the link: Gordon Strachan summoned by the FA to a disciplinary meeting on a charge of "insulting behaviour"; the Liverpool v Middlesbrough Coca-Cola Cup tie; a Fifa convention in Paris; a meeting in Athens of representatives from the main European leagues, including the Premiership. Oh, and any football phone-in on the radio.

The common subject is refereeing. More precisely, refereeing standards and what can be done to improve them or the perception of them. Such is the obsession with what should be an issue peripheral to the game that there are matters clearly to be resolved.

Strachan's forthcoming hearing results from his criticism of Stephen Lodge - "a joke" and "a disgrace" - after the recent Coventry v Arsenal match. Mr Lodge had sent off Paul Williams for an ankle tap on Dennis Bergkamp and in another incident denied the Sky Blues a penalty.

At Anfield, Gary Willard was berated by the television commentary team of Brian Moore and Ron Atkinson for showing yellow cards in a game, they said, that hardly warranted them. Later, though, the Liverpool manager Roy Evans said that Willard was not hard enough on one Middlesbrough player.

Then in Paris, Fifa announced that the duties of the fourth official at international matches would be extended to take the burden of logging yellow cards and substitutions away from the referee. And in Athens, the leagues were considering such ideas as the two-referee system. On radio phone-ins, meanwhile, they'll consider anything; why not, someone suggested, have the facility to substitute the referee if he is having a bad game, as in the case with players?

The problem is that it is so haphazard. Everyone, as is the lifeblood of football, is having his or her say and offering suggestions. It is not, however, sorting out issues which are detracting from the game itself. Libero happens to think that Strachan was largely wrong in his vested- interest view of Mr Lodge's performance. His right to such comments, though, should be defended and it is a pity the FA are considering punishing outspokenness when they should be addressing the criticisms.

There is also much misconception about refereeing nowadays. "Footballers are usually the world's worst referees," said Ron Atkinson accurately on Tuesday, undermining the argument for "fast-tracking" ex-players. "But they do know what is intent and what isn't." Even professionals, it seems, have failed to grasp that intent is no longer the criterion in any foul and consequent card. Williams on Bergkamp may have been unintentional but it denied a goal-scoring opportunity.

There is a crisis of confidence in refereeing, even if much of it is good and almost goes unnoticed. This is a game faster than ever, and improved by Fifa for tighter reins on the tackle from behind and the modification of the offside law. But it is also clear that more improvements and innovations can be made and are worthy of debate at the highest level in one large meeting, rather than in the present piecemeal, fragmented way. Are professional referees the answer? How soon can we expect the "third-eye" video to be used in matters of fact? How do we get assistant referees to give the benefit of the doubt to attackers?

Perhaps, as a result of the Strachan case, the FA - as they used to in world football - could take a lead and instigate a summit of the powers that be, including Fifa, Uefa, referees' and players' representatives, to debate the issues and come up with definitive new proposals for controlling the modern game. It is either that or just listening to Radio Babel.

SO THE Football League's Coca-Cola Cup has its place in the Uefa Cup back. As it should be, of course. Mind you, the winners from the last five years have gone on the following season to win only three ties between them.

A FEW recent games seem to have featured touchline spats as players, and coaches, contest the award of throw-ins. It also appears always to concern fans, as a chorus of "our ball" goes up. If an injustice is perceived and the other team is given the throw, an angry reaction often follows. But why? Has anyone ever seen a goal result from a throw-in, apart from seemingly outdated ones to the far post? And does it not happen more often than not that the team who throw the ball in are almost immediately dispossessed?

In fact, forcing the opposition to throw in often puts them under pressure, especially in the corners they are defending. In fact, since throw-ins are useless to a team, Libero is planning to start a shout of "their ball".

TOMORROW Glenn Hoddle will announce two England squads to play representatives of Chile the following week. With World Cup places under consideration, this could be the first time that a reserve team, who play at West Brom on the Tuesday before the supposed main event at Wembley the next night, carry more interest.

THE MINISTER for Sport Tony Banks thinks "Simply the Best" would make a good World Cup anthem. Maybe. But what about, for Holland and Belgium in two years' time, the Pulp anthem with the chorus line that goes "Let's all meet up in Euro 2000"?

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