Footballing standards are in free-fall

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The Independent Football

I used to think football was a simple game. The more skilful players usually prevailed, given reasonable preparation and an adequate referee. Like moats and fences, onfield histrionics were a foreign peculiarity. In England a felled player got up, dusted himself off and started to re-apply his professionalism to the task of earning his modest bonus. Managers tried to emulate the flinty dignity of Matt Busby on the touchline.

I used to think football was a simple game. The more skilful players usually prevailed, given reasonable preparation and an adequate referee. Like moats and fences, onfield histrionics were a foreign peculiarity. In England a felled player got up, dusted himself off and started to re-apply his professionalism to the task of earning his modest bonus. Managers tried to emulate the flinty dignity of Matt Busby on the touchline.

Now things are much more difficult to read. Take the laws. First we were told there would be no rule changes or initiatives to worry about this season. Then it emerged amid a welter of cards and recriminations that Fifa had ordered a crackdown on shirt pulling and diving. One referee I saw clearly hadn't received the letter, because, to the frustration of the home team and fans, he continually tried to play advantage with players clinging to one another like limpets.

With the speed of the game, how are referees expected to make sense of the diving issue, now it is a cautionable offence? At a time when so many managers are rude and offensive to referees, it is difficult to be optimistic about the suggestion of Ipswich Town's Matt Holland and the referee Graham Poll that managers and players should be doing more to help referees. People say players go down as if hit by a sniper's bullet, but, had they really been injured, as any old pro knows, they would not roll over and over.

Let's turn to the technical area, the rectangular box in front of what used to be called the trainers' benches, which was invented a few years ago to regularise the practice of managers coaching from the sidelines and to help them convey tactical instructions during the heat of the battle. This was supposed to improve the game, it having been conceded that the days of captains such as Spurs' Danny Blanchflower, who would surely have obliterated the technical area's markings with his studs rather than admit that he needed tactical advice, were gone.

Whenever the slightest incident goes off, the whole bench is on its feet, finger-jabbing and screaming. The concept of a technical area, where a single manager can calmly convey tactical adjustments, has become a joke. At the expense of the referee and his assistants.

For a while the Football League tried to make the managers actually remain seated. But Kenny Dalglish, for one, preferred to stand. And when the Premier League clubs, who did not see the need for the rule, played against Football League clubs in the League Cup, it was the referees who didn't know whether they were on their arse or their elbow.

Before hooliganism blighted the game, football duty was a perk for the coppers and a modest charge on the gate for the clubs. Now police HQ is a cost centre with managers looking at ways to increase revenue from event organisers and some commanders have taken their eyes off the ball. Take the example of the police spokesman at Derby after the fracas following Robbie Savage's display of glee. He made the usual pronouncements about footballers being role models and assured us he wouldn't hesitate to act upon evidence of criminal behaviour if it were brought to his attention. Far be it for me to be a nark, but there was a chap in a bright yellow jacket...

Not only is there a damaging pay dispute between the players and the leagues, but resentment is also simmering between the Nationwide referees and their Football League paymasters. Most referees receive £210 per match and have to collect Tesco points at the fuel pumps while their Barclaycard Premiership counterparts travel gold card on £500 plus a juicy £33,000 annual retainer.

Maybe there is a new way the top referees will be expected to earn their money, for the latest idea to improve the game is to send them on media training courses in preparation for after-match press conferences. Poll already appears before the cameras, but he believes that players should be sent off for diving, and when he reached for his pocket on seeing Robbie Fowler, a previous recipient of the Fifa Fair Play Award, tumble in the penalty area Alan Green, knowing the referee's views, told BBC listeners it could be a red card. I am sure about one thing. No matter how entertaining it may be, when it becomes clear that a referee cannot explain a decision to an interviewer because it is a wrong one, neither he nor the game will have anywhere to hide

Grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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