Football: Wanted: Help for the panting refs

LIBERO
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The Independent Online
As With most weeks, it was a good one for Manchester United, quite apart from salvaging a point they barely deserved against Chelsea. Gary Pallister had a red card downgraded to a yellow while Roy Keane escaped with a yellow that probably should have been red.

There was a sound argument that if Pallister's case arising from his confrontation with Bolton's Nathan Blake could be reviewed - and justice duly prevail - due to television evidence, then why cannot videotape also be used to ensure than Keane is punished for two acts of aggression against Chelsea?

The answer is that there is no reason why not, should the referee be aware, or admit, that he has made a mistake, as Paul Durkin admirably did with Pallister. The FA has always been able to act retrospectively where the evidence is convincing. Only last season, with the consent of the PFA, they decreed that they would be using video evidence when it came to mass brawls on the field, as the referee was frequently unable single-handledly to identify all the culprits.

That suggested the FA know the real issue here: referees alone can no longer keep up satisfactorily with everything that goes on during a match. The idea of naming linesmen as assistants suggested as much. A counter-argument has it that the game encompasses human error and that mistakes have to be tolerated. But surely only with its players. It seems perverse when technology exists - and every professional match is covered by at least one TV camera these days - to ignore its potential to eradicate errors of fact. Judgement is a separate matter.

With improved diets and training techniques, players are becoming fitter and games quicker for longer. To boot, panting refs have new rules to administer - incidentally, has anyone seen a goalkeeper penalised yet under the "five or six seconds" rule? - and old ones to implement more rigorously. will one day be able to offer immediate on-field help, with pictures being interpreted instantly from a control centre and communicated into a ref's earpiece by a fourth official.

Sky's "virtual replay" can determine within seconds if an offside decision is correct. The question of a ball having crossed the goalline is even quicker. The problem is that only Sky's main games have such blanket camera coverage. Look for the European Championship finals of 2000 to use technology officially to help referees. This may be why the game's authorities have resisted the two-referee system.

In the meantime, refs need all the help they can get and are no doubt grateful for the guidance they receive from David Mellor and the fair- minded opinions he rouses. At least linesmen these days seem finally to be getting into the swing and revealing themselves more helpful in the overall aim of making the game cleaner and more entertaining.

During the Arsenal v West Ham match in midweek, a wonderful pass from Dennis Bergkamp split the visiting defence and sent in Marc Overmars, who had timed his run well. Fortunately the linesman kept his flag down, although many would not have done so seeing an attacker with the ball in so much space and making an assumption. Andy Cole was also, correctly, given the benefit of the doubt, as the new "level" law intended, during the United v Chelsea match.

Unfortunately Libero cannot give credit by naming the linesmen concerned, as it is now impossible to tell them apart. One carries a yellow and orange flag and the other an orange and yellow flag. Of course, the system also precludes shy linesmen being "outed" for their mistakes; they have been more culpable of spoiling games than referees in recent seasons. Perhaps after midweek's encouraging shows, it will not be necessary.

I Understand that Fabrizio Ravanelli went to Marseille only after Tottenham's Gerry Francis withdrew from negotiations. Rumour has it that Francis asked Bryan Robson for a price; Robson responded that "six million wouldn't buy him". "And I've just become one of those six million," Francis replied.

So Much in football is changing; even its on-pitch geography. A friend was telling of a new place on the field he had heard a manager mention. Where, he wondered, was this "mixer", into which the ball keeps getting put? Well, as any genuine fan knows, this is located "up front", just ahead of "the hole". Libero hopes that this helps and in its ceaseless quest to explain and expose the game of football, will be providing other explanations of the modern game's glossary in the weeks to come. All enquiries welcome.

The misnamed Champions' League is back with us and as accompaniment, that theme tune. This column ventured last season that the singers seemed to be chorusing "Lasagne" amid all that orchestration. One perceptive reader suggests that in deference to Switzerland-based Uefa the words are actually "Lausanne, Ja!" Any other offers?

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