Graham Kelly: Juniors' rolling substitutions deserve red card

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The Independent Football

Sometimes, football's governing authorities appear determined to send out their referees with one hand tied firmly behind their backs.

The most daunting experience facing a "rookie" official is his first match in junior football. Armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the laws of the game he marches to the middle, knees only slightly knocking and stomach churning. If all goes well he will get through without succumbing to the tumultuous clangers and pitfalls of this initiation.

If he encounters any areas of disagreement, you may rest assured that they will be over the new interpretation of offside and he will find himself in heated debate with a burly parent (or two) considerably older than him and with certainly a more colourful vocabulary. This is likely to be an extension of an earlier discussion with a six-foot juvenile defender with particularly high testosterone levels.

Should these exchanges necessitate a report to the County Football Association, the sanction levied on the offenders will come to approximately £25, so the odds are stacked against the sorry young man in the middle and this is even before the latest move in "junior" football that is making his job all the more difficult.

The Football Association is now allowing rolling substitutions in junior football for all players under 16. This means that a player who has been replaced may return as a substitute for another team-mate during a stoppage with the permission of the referee. With one decision of its council, the FA has managed to negate much of the progress made when Howard Wilkinson's Charter for Quality outlawed 11-a-side football for under-11s. Now leagues up and down the country are rushing to amend their regulations so that clubs with 11-16-year-olds can take full advantage of this new opportunity.

The loophole that the council has created - for I believe that's what it is - arises out of a simple explanation in the laws booklet. For obvious reasons national associations are authorised by the international board to modify certain laws - size of the pitch, weight of the ball, duration of the game and "substitutions" - in respect of women's, veterans' (over-35), disabled, and junior (under-16) football matches.

Sensibly, the only place rolling substitutions currently find a home is in FA rules for mini-soccer, for children between the ages of six and 10, who are learning the structure of the game after earlier acquiring the rudimentary skills . Even at this tender age, the football is competitive and it can sometimes be tricky keeping order when kids are anxious to join the fray towards the conclusion of a tense and exciting encounter. Invariably, the respective team managers will be operating from different touchlines, so that the referee is faced with substitutes coming on from both sides of the pitch.

The transition from 7-a-side "baby football" to the 11-a-side proper game with offside at age 11 is crucial in the evolution of a player, and not to treat them like proper players for another five years is one of the most stupid decisions I have heard about for a long time.

Rather like those referees near the top of the tree who are encouraged to "man-manage" bad language out of the game, some county association development committees are concentrating on "controlling" the rolling substitutions. I hope they don't find it is a case of bolting the stable door. It will be extremely difficult for referees to keep track of players' numbers in these circumstances. Moreover, we have all seen managers running down the clock as the full-time whistle approaches.

Meanwhile, the referees and assistants chosen by Uefa, the European governing body, for Euro 2004 received a ringing endorsement from the chief executive, Lars-Christer Olsson, at their recent preparatory course in Portugal. "You will be setting an example for football and for refereeing throughout the entire world."

Therefore I consider it to be a pity that the tough talking from his referees committee did not give the officials more specific instruction on how best to proceed in the event of mass confrontations. Red cards will be shown if there are any "physical excesses", but we all know that some coaches have a tendency to encourage players to crowd round to make it difficult to identify offenders. What then will Uefa do in front of the watching eyes of the world?

And the yellow card must come out if the defensive wall does not retire the full 10 yards. But what about the player who immediately (no doubt on instructions) stands defiantly over the ball?

Finally, sincere congratulations to 19-year-old apprentice electrician, Jayson Kiggins, of Whitehaven, who has recently qualified as a referee despite being profoundly deaf. He can lip read what the players say and ignore the crowd, so he has the credentials to go to the top.