Red tide rising to new levels of concern

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PREMIERSHIP REFEREES who acclimatise too slowly or too extremely to new directives are partly to blame for the record upsurge in red cardsthis season, according to Fifa, football's world governing body.

PREMIERSHIP REFEREES who acclimatise too slowly or too extremely to new directives are partly to blame for the record upsurge in red cardsthis season, according to Fifa, football's world governing body.

"All associations get the same guidelines where the basic principles are mentioned," Andreas Herren, a Fifa spokesman, said. "It's up to the referees'committees to forward that to their officials and assess situations from a pragmatic viewpoint. What happens in individual games is beyond Fifa'scontrol."

Herren said that the Premiership's problems - there have been 27 red cards (one subsequently rescinded) this season already - were not beingreplicated in other countries. "I'd call it the traditional autumn question of the British asking Fifa what it thinks of how new rules are beingimplemented," he said. "That needs to be addressed by the referees' committees."

Four sendings-off at the weekend - three of which at least were highly contentious - underlined a growing problem in the Premiership. Dismissalsthis season are already averaging more than one every four games. Seven years ago, in the first season of the revamped top flight, the average was justone in every 15 games, or 34 in 462 matches played in a 22-team division. In 1993-94, there were only 29. Even last season, when red card levelsreached new heights, there was only a dismissal once every fifth match on average.

Opinion in football over who is to blame is divided. "It's Fifa rules," John Barnwell, the chairman of the League Managers' Association, saidyesterday when asked what might explain the increase in cards. "If you get a second yellow card you're off and that punishment, in some cases,doesn't warrant the offence. The referees have to abide by the strict controls they're under."

Barnwell added that he was considering proposing a review of how offences are penalised. "At this stage we're watching the situation closely, butwe'll get through this month before we see a truer picture. In the first month of new directives, you're always going to get more cards. But thestatistics are worrying us. The difference in cards between the Premier League - where we have what we regard as the best referees - and the FootballLeague, is quite marked."

The latest set of directives to referees stresses the need to punish diving and dissent and to keep a close watch on the behaviour of those on the bench.A Premier League spokesman said that the Premiership referees' officer, Phillip Don, had no major concerns about how his officials were performingthis season. "He's broadly happy with the way the referees are working," the spokesman said. "He [Don] also thinks it should be recognised thatalthough there have been more red cards this season, we have played more games than at this stage last season."

Some managers, however, are not happy with the standard of refereeing. "Something has to be done," West Ham's manager, Harry Redknapp, saidyesterday. "We need these over-zealous and officious referees to start showing some common sense."

Redknapp saw one of his players, Marc-Vivien Foe, become the second man to be sent off - after Patrick Vieira - at Upton Park in his team's gamewith Arsenal on Sunday. He added: "It is so worrying when I think I've seen two games in two days and in total 21 yellow cards and four red."

Gerald Ashby, a former Fifa referee and current Premiership assessor, said the reason for the increase in cards was because the Premiership hasbecome more physical and there was pressure on players to succeed at all costs.

"People in the game recognise the stakes are so great and the rewards to be won that they are getting carried away with that," Ashby said. "Thebottom line is that people in the game have become frightened to lose. I heard one manager say that he can only afford to lose two more matches andthere is still virtually a full season to go. That's what it is like now and people and players are carried away with that rather than thinking aboutbehaviour and conduct and it is showing in the games.

"I definitely believe the behaviour and conduct of players towards each other is of a less sporting nature than you would expect. I've noticed thatparticularly in just the past two weeks. There are more physical challenges now than there used to be. Players are being more rash in their challengesand there are more of the jumping-in type of tackles."

He added: "That kind of challenge had been almost eliminated 12 to 15 months ago when it was dealt with severely by referees, but is definitelystarting to creep back in. Maybe referees need to take stronger action about that kind of challenge now and it has to be nipped in the bud. But thebottom line is there is more pressure on players than ever before not to lose and it is leading to more niggly and physical play."