Football: Panel games given life on `Red Thursday'

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The Independent Online
WE HAVE grown used to having "Red Nose Day" every two years, but now Fifa is getting into the act with "Red Card Day" every four. Last Thursday's five-dismissal extravaganza was not a complete surprise because Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini had been moaning about the referees being too lenient. As these two men are, respectively, in charge of Fifa and France 98, what they moan about one day becomes law the next.

The crackdown came just in time for the - well what is the collective noun for pundits? An argument of, or jock-strap of? Whatever, both sets had been showing signs of fatigue and delirium after watching 20 games in the first week. Des Lynam decided to take a day off while those left behind on the BBC team put their hands up and asked "sir" if they could go outside on the grass now that it was sunny. They were duly indulged as the roof terrace of Lynam Park became the new focus of their operations. But just like children when they have lessons out of the school, they became a bit giggly and silly, with Martin O'Neill successfully winding- up Jimmy Hill, and Gary Lineker unable to control the class.

The stir-craziness had hit new lows on ITV when Bob Wilson chortled with glee at Ruud Gullit's first-form pun on Chile. Judging by that response, Wilson must be in absolute raptures when he sees what Frank Skinner and David Baddiel are down to on the same channel. So "Red Thursday" came as a distinct relief in that it was at least an issue of substance for the panels to get their teeth into.

Unfortunately for ITV, the three dismissals in the Denmark-South Africa game all came in the second half, after the panel had sat, so judgment was left to Kevin Keegan who seemed to take the line that none of the incidents justified a sending-off. But then it was Kev, if I remember correctly, who saw not much wrong with Brazil's Leonardo smashing his elbow into the face of America's Tab Ramos at USA 94. So it would probably require someone to stick a live ferret down an opponent's shorts to get this dour Tyke to back a referee's red card.

The BBC's roof-top quartet had had the luxury of a few hours to smell Fifa's conspiracy unfolding, so they were able to open directly with the issue even before the France-Saudi Arabia match had lifted the bookmakers' "spread" on the red-card total to a new high. David Ginola was initially absent, presumably washing his hair, so Jimmy Hill more or less had the field to himself. Nothing pleases Hill more than his own self-righteousness and it was given full rein on Thursday night. If there is a Viagra for the mouth then he must be on it.

His main point seemed to be that referees had to be capable of discerning the precise level of malice in a foul before deciding on the colour of the card they should wave. This suggested a naive perception on Hill's part that any player wishing to commit a foul does so in the style of a pantomime villain in order to make his intentions clear.

This may have been the case in the days of Tommy Smith, Dave Mackay and Norman Hunter, but today's professionals bring such an infinite variety of subtlety to the black art of taking out an opponent that referees almost require two heads. Both Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson had mentioned earlier in the week how their first instinct as defenders when an opponent tried to go past them was to put an arm across. "It's in the coaching manual," the Scot had expostulated as though the truth could not be otherwise.

As Hill acknowledged, we the audience have the privilege of the replay and camera coverage from virtually all angles but the referee makes his decision on what he sees in an instant. During half-time in France's game, Hill was about to carp over the booking of Laurent Blanc, but, even as he spoke, the replay was showing the French defender with a handful of his Saudi opponent's shirt to pull him down. Hill backtracked on that one, but if he persists in his campaign to vilify referees, particularly those he regards as coming from minor football cultures, his argument can only end in one result - games being halted while the fourth official watches a television replay on the touchline in order to adjudicate on any controversial decisions. Fifa will not take much nudging to go down this road.

So does Jimmy Hill really want that to happen? Quite apart from killing the continuity that makes football such a wonderful spectacle, it would also remove the need for television panels entirely. Somebody get me Sepp Blatter's phone number immediately!