Referees get tough in laying down law

High number of red cards is likely to persist as officials target players who step out of line
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While Arsenal sought to convince Patrick Vieira that he still has a future in English football, the Football Association yesterday handed him a five-match suspension for the two red cards he received in the first two games of the season.

While Arsenal sought to convince Patrick Vieira that he still has a future in English football, the Football Association yesterday handed him a five-match suspension for the two red cards he received in the first two games of the season.

In the wake of the pre-season assertion that they were cracking down on bad behaviour, more severe punishments might have been anticipated but there is a strong argument for a more moderate approach. Monday night's match - which also saw two Liverpool players, Gary McAllister and Dietmar Hamann, sent off - was fiercely competitive, but it did not descend into the anarchy of a brawl and, though Graham Poll's refereeing erred on the harsh side, he never lost control of the match.

The FA's initial reaction appeared to agree with this view as it clarified one aspect of their disciplinary policy, informing Liverpool that they will not be fined £25,000 for receiving six cards, as the sanctions did not apply to six different players.

Yesterday, McAllister received a three-match ban while his team-mate Hamann was suspended for one.

Vieira, having been sent-off in successive matches, the first for violent conduct, is perhaps lucky to receive only a five-match ban, as he could have faced additional punishment for throwing down his shirt on his way off the pitch. However, his punishment was always unlikely to exceed the six-match suspension he received last season after spitting in Neil Ruddock's face following a dismissal against West Ham.

A five-match ban means he will not play Premiership football from 26 August to 14 October, a period which includes matches at Chelsea and at home to Manchester United.

Vieira left the ground before the end of the match on Monday night, but Arsÿne Wenger is hopeful that he can fight off the advances of several Italian clubs, notably Juventus, and retain the gifted 23-year-old.

However, the Arsenal manager complained bitterly about players who seek to provoke Vieira, picking out Darren Williams, the Sunderland player who was elbowed by Vieira on Saturday.

Wenger said: "At international level [Vieira has not been sent off in 29 appearances for France] everybody tries to play football. That is not always the case here.

"I don't think the guy whogot him sent off [at Sunderland] tried to play football. After Patrick was sent off he was winking at the bench as if to say 'I have done my job'. You do not get that at international level. It is difficult to accept that professional footballers go on to the pitch just to wind others up.

"Usually the physical side of the game in England is great and I love it. It is why I am here. I love the passion. Ninety per cent of the teams play normally but a few managers do not encourage their players to play football," Wenger said.

The Monday dismissal irked Wenger as he believed Vieira tried to play the ball but thetwo bookings appear justified. The first followed a clash with Jamie Carragher which, had Poll not forced himself between them, would probably havebecome a fight. The second was for a two-footed tackle from behind which would surely have done serious damageto Hamann's leg had it made contact.

Poll had little choice. Philip Don, the Premier League's Referee's Officer, said it had been determined pre-season, after consultation with clubs, that referees would "pick up on" such tackles.

Barry Horne, the chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, said most players agreed with the policy. "Players want referees to clamp down on them. These are tackles which are likely to injure players. But I don't believe indiscipline is greater than ever, the spate of red cards is due to the way referees have been asked to officiate."

This is generally true; the game was far more violent 25 years ago. However, there are special factors relevant to English Premiership football. Because it is played to such a high tempo, with extreme intensity, and because possession of the ball is treated with less respect than overseas, players are far more inclined to dive into tackles, thus setting the ball loose, than stay on their feet and try to both steal and retain the ball. This is a major reason for Vieira's better disciplinary record with France - and Dennis Wise's in European club football.

The English game is not going to change overnight so we had better get used to a high level of dismissals. In the last two seasons there have been more than 800 in English domestic football while Vieira was one of eight players seeing red on Saturday in a 41-game programme.

One solution is a sin-bin. Long used in hockey, it has proved such a success in rugby union it is being extended across the board this season. As Horne said: "It gives a referee more leeway."

And referees need help. Poll's display was mixed but the divergence of opinion in the press box over the first two dismissals underlined the difficulty, on one split-second viewing, in reaching the correct decision. With Premiership referees now receiving £900 a game, there is also financial pressure on them to make the right decision.

Poll's apparent relish of his notoriety does not help his cause, but it is a tough job. As Thierry Henry said in a rare moment of sanity at Highbury: "The referee is human, he can make mistakes, just like we did at Sunderland."



21 - Willie Johnston (including 10 in Scottish football, four in the US, one while playing for Scotland) and Roy McDonough (including eight in non-League)


13 - Steve Walsh (Leicester City) 11- Dennis Wise (Chelsea) 8 -Paul Gascoigne and Mark Hughes (both Everton)


6 - Vinnie Jones 5 - Francis Benali, John Hartson, Martin Keown, Frank Sinclair, Patrick Vieira, Jason Wilcox