Punishing 'sinners' fails to comprehend a footballer's

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The Independent Online

WHEN OLD footballers joke that the wrath of referees would fall today even on such virtuous heroes as Stanley Matthews and Bobby Charlton they are thinking about how things were before the onset of meddlesome authority. If one thing is more certain than another in the furious debate that has arisen over the assignment of responsibility for controversial disturbances in the Premiership, it is that the sorry effect of inflexible law enforcement will not be given enough of an airing.

WHEN OLD footballers joke that the wrath of referees would fall today even on such virtuous heroes as Stanley Matthews and Bobby Charlton they are thinking about how things were before the onset of meddlesome authority. If one thing is more certain than another in the furious debate that has arisen over the assignment of responsibility for controversial disturbances in the Premiership, it is that the sorry effect of inflexible law enforcement will not be given enough of an airing.

Nobody in their right mind condones violent play. But in its eagerness to sanitise the game for a family audience and promote distaff participation, Fifa, football's world governing body, has created a charter for cheats that offends the vigour for which English football is internationally applauded.

There is no future in allowing bad fouls to go unpunished but it is the exception today when a referee, after finding for the plaintiff, takes no further action on the grounds that malice was not intended.

Anyone puzzled by the pretty obvious conclusion that players at work in these islands are at greater risk from punitive action than they would be elsewhere need look no further than the majority influence exerted on Fifa's law-making International Board by representatives from each of the four British associations.

Of course, it is not the only reason why the impression grows that English football is sinking into a twilight of reason. Referees are not to blame for the sort of unseemly comportment that brought disgrace on Arsenal's midfielder Patrick Vieira after he was shown a second yellow card at West Ham last Saturday. However, the failure of the referee Mike Reed to spot Paolo Di Canio's thespian contribution to the Frenchman's departure explains the concern expressed this week by a manager in the Premiership.

Looking back on that and a number of other troublesome incidents this season, he said: "I can get into enough trouble banging on about referees who handle our matches without remarking on what I see elsewhere in the Premiership, but unless referees get to understand the difference between a deliberate foul and poor timing we'll have a real crisis on our hands."

Because expecting referees to immediately distinguish between the accidental lunge and the intentional clatter appears to be asking a lot, nobody should be surprised by their inability to plumb the depth of any player's soul and interpret the innermost workings of his psyche.

These are different times - maybe better, maybe not, but different. Law- givers who recognise fully that many incidents that may appear to be the result of intent are definitely unintentional are further tested by the irrefutable fact that many of these entirely unintentional incidents are dramatised out of all proportion.

Maybe this is the erroneous memory of a veteran, but it is the impression here that nobody in British football 20 and more years ago attempted to get an opponent sent off. They got annoyed, of course, and sometimes resorted to reprisals but cautions were rare and dismissals sensational.

I recently thought about this during a televised replay of the 1970 FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leeds at Old Trafford. It is easy to conjure up - hell, it is impossible not to imagine - what a furore that confrontation would have caused in today's climate.

Try to imagine a match in which many of the outfield players escaped retribution for acts of extreme hostility. Prompted by this opportunity for comparison I took the trouble to speak again with some of the participants, including the Swansea City manager, John Hollins, who made more than 800 First Division appearances when turing out for Chelsea, Arsenal and Queen's Park Rangers without ever stretching a referee's patience. "Games against Leeds were always hard but that was one of the nastiest I played in," he said. "You couldn't see anything like it today because there wouldn't be enough players left on the field to finish the match."

Not exactly going out of their way to make a difficult job easier, the authorities have instructed referees to come down hard on football's sinners. Sinners? Passing by Arsenal's treatment room on his way out of Highbury, the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was asked to take a look at a leg wound inflicted on Terry Neill by Tommy Smith. Shankly gave it his closest attention. "Aye, Tommy's a hard boy," he said.

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