Football: Poll's progressive snub to prissy attitudes

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The Independent Online
WE HAVE been following the first big story of general interest to develop this football season, one that put the Premiership's two most prominent managers at odds, caused a discernible split in press reaction and provided encouragement for the game's livelier combatants.

What I'm thinking about is reaction to the lenience shown by Graham Poll when refereeing last Sunday's flinty encounter between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury. The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, grumbled about Poll's performance, feeling that he should have been more in touch with interpretations laid down by the authorities. Sir Alex Ferguson had only praise for Poll. "The referee had a great game," the Manchester United manager said.

Whether Poll's performance was simply a sensible response to fairly predictable events or suggests a less punitive policy is anybody's guess but it has to be said that his discretion contributed greatly to the entertainment.

However, a few who reported the game (and doubtless, others in this trade who watched on television) did not appear to be sure about the way Poll went about his work, and if it was to the benefit of football generally.

The trouble is that they have been brought up with the notion of a game best served by absolute protection for artistry and little or no licence for vigorous acts of dispossession. I'm not entirely sure what sort of game these people have in mind but it doesn't sound like one that would thrive for long in the public's interest.

I'm telling you this with the blank air of a veteran reporter intending no campaign for the values of an older generation. It is simply that the prissy attitudes evident among many in and around football today have become wearisome.

Nobody in their right mind condones violent play but it is only necessary to recall administrative meddling with interpretation of the laws during last year's World Cup finals in France to understand the harm that has been done in recent seasons. The finals were moving along quite nicely without any overtly disturbing incidents when the Fifa general secretary Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini (who could sniff out a hurtful tackle at 50 paces) called on referees to come down heavily on transgressions even if they were more the result of bad timing than malice. Consequently, the 1998 finals suffered from some daft decisions.

One effect of this was to persuade club coaches that their pupils would need further instruction in avoiding periods of enforced idleness.

Just a few days ago I discussed this with a manager who played at a time when bookings, never mind dismissals, were rare. Having worked hard on difficulties imposed by the wholesale distribution of yellow cards he sees an improvement. "We never let our defenders forget the importance of staying on their feet, especially in their penalty area," he said, picking out Jaap Stam as the best example since Bobby Moore.

He is not alone in this but unfortunately the efforts made have often been lost on match officials. "We've done our best to come into line but if you are looking for a reason why a lot of defensive play is poor look no further than the fact that players get themselves in a tangle for fear of being punished," I was told.

Perhaps it is just beginning to dawn on the authorities that the cliche of "a man's game" has more relevance than they have been inclined to concede. If they give themselves freshly to what was seen at Highbury they will have a better understanding of what it takes for a referee to get the confidence of players.

Something may yet come of the dust up between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, but there was not much else to suggest that Poll was taking a big risk in relying on the players to conduct themselves in a manner becoming to their profession.

The testy question of whether Poll was right or wrong will blur or perhaps sharpen in the weeks to come. But, from here, Wenger's complaint sounded suspiciously like the wail of a loser.