Football: Now is not the time to relax rules on betting

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NEW RULES are being introduced by the Football Association; they have been approved by the members and will come into effect next year.

I turned to the rulebook in the wake of the comments by Martin Edwards about David Elleray's eligibility for a championship medal should the Premiership trophy remain at Highbury last season, Paul Ince's criticisms of Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson and David O'Leary's remark that he had pounds 100 on Manchester United to win last season's title.

The present rule states that it is misconduct to bet on any football match; the new rule will prohibit a player or manager from betting on any match or competition in which he is playing or on which he has any influence.

This relaxation of the outright ban on betting seems to have opened one or two doors. For example, what happens if a Football League player bets on the Premiership and is subsequently transferred to a Premier League club during the season? Should a referee on the Football League list be allowed to bet on a Premiership match? Moreover, any lessening of the restrictions will surely give out a wrong signal when, in the wake of the floodlight tampering case, every possible step should be taken to discourage the macho betting culture which is so prevalent today.

Generally speaking, when I was chief executive of the Football Association, I took a relaxed attitude to the public expression of personal opinions. Verbal attacks on referees, either direct to the match official himself or via comments to the media, often resulted in a charge under the legendary rule 26 (a) (x) which prohibited unsporting, insulting or improper statements and comments likely to bring the game into disrepute. Clearly such attacks were unsporting and went to the very fabric of the game, the impartiality and the competence of those who controlled the matches. Any such opinions were expected to be conveyed to the game's authorities on the official report form.

But, outside that, I believed other views, provided they were honestly held, were part of the cut and thrust of robust debate and fair comment. One exception occurred when Paul McGrath attacked Alex Ferguson in a newspaper article after leaving Manchester United for Aston Villa. Following a complaint from the Old Trafford hierarchy, the FA fined McGrath. Even that sanction was questionable at this distance. Ferguson proved McGrath wrong many times over by his subsequent triumphs.

The game is big enough to withstand expressions of opinion. It is highly likely that Houllier and Liverpool will be vindicated long after Ince's comments are forgotten.

League rulers have often been targeted by unhappy and critical clubs. Back in 1978 at the time of the so-called "Snatch of the Day" whereby ITV attempted to break the BBC's stranglehold on League football (how quaint that notion sounds today), Jimmy Hill, then with Coventry City, accused the management committee of football hooliganism of the worst sort for going behind the BBC's back.

A later management committee became the "mis-management committee" in the pages of Robert Maxwell's Daily Mirror after preventing him from adding Watford to his growing clutch of clubs.

Then David Evans, the chairman of Luton Town, rivalled Maxwell for vitriol when the League threw his club out of the League Cup for refusing to supply tickets to away supporters.

"Unsporting"? In the minds of the League, possibly. "Improper"? Probably. "Insulting"? Definitely.

Messrs Hill, Maxwell and Evans would have been disappointed if the management committee had not been insulted but there was little point in hurling the rulebook in retribution. The game's governors had to be big enough to get on with doing their job as they saw fit.

Now the rule will be somewhat different. Those under the FA's jurisdiction will be obliged to act in the best interests of the game at all times. Though it will be a breach of rule to act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or to use insulting words, the specific reference to verbal statements is disappearing.

Another interesting re-written rule is the provision for interim suspension orders. Provided the League and the Professional Footballers' Association agree, a player charged with a breach of rules or facing a criminal prosecution may in appropriate circumstances be prevented from playing until the case is heard. In the case of a fairly clear-cut incident like Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick, immediate suspension would have been useful and the FA need not have relied on Manchester United to ban the player till the end of the season as they did. However, a complex issue such as the match-fixing allegations faced by Bruce Grobbelaar would not have been so simple.

A positive dope test is likely to be the cause of the first such banning order.