Graham Kelly: Time for actions to speak louder than swearwords

You would think the FA, with its desire to promote positive values to children, would be wanting to send out a firmer message
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The Independent Football

A breath of fresh air is sweeping across the country from the North-east after a Football Association official surprised the locals by explaining how referees no longer automatically regard four-letter words as offences under the laws of the game.

The Albany Northern League, long noted for its zero tolerance level towards bad language, therefore renewed its own code, which clubs are expected to sign by 21 March, following the statement by the FA referees officer, Joe Guest, that the use of four-letter words was not necessarily an offence. Some swearing could effectively be managed out of the game by referees, he said, notwithstanding the fact that Law 12 obliges referees to send off players who use "insulting, offensive or abusive language".

Guest told a meeting of the contributory leagues, which supply referees to the Conference, that the referee should determine what is "offensive", paying attention to the context in which the words were used - but that players should be dismissed for swearing at match officials.

Even this final vestige of common sense could come under challenge if the burgeoning band of football lawyers get hold of case law in Scotland in 2001 when Lord Prosser ruled that it was not offensive to tell a police officer to f*** off.

The ANL chairman, Mike Amos, writing in the League's magazine Northern Ventures, Northern Gains, took issue with Guest's stance, pointing out that Northumbria Police had announced a crackdown on swearing in all public places including sports fields, and the Northumberland County FA had also introduced a get-tough policy following complaints from members of the public. "The excuse that it's used on television isn't acceptable," said the county secretary, Roland Maughan. "We need match officials to apply the laws of the game."

Tony Golightly, the ANL secretary, who told the meeting that he felt swearing loudly across the pitch was unacceptable, was surprised that swearing itself was no longer considered offensive. "I don't accept that swearing is a normal part of life; it shouldn't be acceptable anywhere. If I take my grandson to a match, I don't want him to hear the language which I have heard from the football field, the trainers' boxes and even from spectators. We have always thought that Law 12 supported our stance and the authorities should be leading this. I admire the Northumberland FA for following our lead."

The area's divisional FA council member, Mike Armitage of Shildon, said it was disappointing to learn that "industrial" language was acceptable. He said: "Every effort must be made to stamp out the use of this language if we are to attract families to the game at our level. I will raise our concerns with the FA."

Leaving aside my personal quibble about which industry tolerates bad language, except obviously the football industry, I believe Armitage makes an excellent point about families being attracted to football, and it is one which is apposite at a time when this season's England rugby successes are so fresh in the mind.

I have much sympathy with Guest, who is only telling it like it is in an age when John Lydon can swear with impunity on ITV, but you would think that the FA, with its desire to promote positive values to children with family-orientated sponsorship partners such as Pepsi and McDonalds, would be wanting to send out a firmer message.

Their referees' managers are clearly in an unenviable position. How do they advise referees to apply the law on language uniformly and consistently across the various levels? One referee of old, Gordon Hill, from Leicester, became known as the players' referee in the 1970s for his penchant for giving back as good as he got. And he was a head teacher. Mr Hill's style did not always find favour with the authorities.

Descending even lower than the ANL, I took four of the 10-year-olds I coach to watch a West Lancashire League match the other day. Even though there were plenty of f-words, this hard-fought encounter on a public park was excellently handled by an up-and-coming referee who did not reach into his pocket once.

The boys soon became bored and went for a kickabout. I was as uncomfortable with the profanities as I am at sporting dinners, where the speakers have the nerve to apologise to the ladies in advance, but it appears to have become acceptable, which is precisely the Northern League's gripe.

The most pathetic commentary I heard on all this came from a very old friend who tried to tell me it was impossible to work on the playing side of the game without resorting to this sort of language. It must be a badge of dishonour, I replied.

I will support any measures to change things for the better, to remove sexually aggressive swearing from football.