Referees stand firm in face of free-kick row

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The Independent Online

Graeme Souness and Arsène Wenger were wrong to protest about quickly taken free-kicks that cost their respective teams goals and Premiership points this week, according to leading refereeing officials.

David Beckham's equaliser for Manchester United at Blackburn on Wednesday and Ian Harte's opening goal for Leeds United at Highbury both brought complaints that they were taken before the home defence was ready. But it was emphasised yesterday that the referee had given permission for the kick to be taken in each case.

Beckham's chip was particularly embarrassing for Blackburn, whose goalkeeper Brad Friedel was caught yards off his line, attempting to sort out a defensive wall. Souness also queried whether his defender Craig Short, who had just been sent off, was still on the pitch at the time of the kick, and came to the perhaps premature conclusion that having professional referees was no improvement.

Philip Don, who is in charge of the new select group of 24 professionals, said: "I've spoken to the referee [Alan Wiley] and his comment to David Beckham was: 'You have to wait until Craig Short leaves the pitch.' According to the referee, Craig Short had."

"It's not necessary for the whistle to be blown," said Jim Ashworth, who represents Football League referees on the new Professional Game Match Officials' Board. "The laws of the game say only that 'the referee shall signal' for the re-start. The referee will ask a player if he wants a quick free-kick and, if the player says yes, he can take it on any signal, whether it's a gesture, a nod or a whistle. If the player says he wants 10 yards, then clearly he must wait. What we don't want to be doing is giving the advantage to the side that has committed the offence."

August would not be August without refereeing controversies, and this month has proved no exception. At the start of every season, there are either new laws or new directives to implement, and the desired level of consistency is not immediately achieved. This week David Elleray was widely criticised for issuing a straight red card to Tottenham's Gustavo Poyet at Everton but missing a much worse tackle by his team-mate Mauricio Taricco; Tottenham's Gary Doherty and Middlesbrough's Ugo Ehiogu have been sent off for (perceived) fouls in the penalty area, whereas Charlton's Steve Brown and Ipswich Town's Titus Bramble stayed on the pitch. Officials are keen to stress, however, that there have been no changes in that rule, or in the procedure for free-kicks.

The two areas in which the game's world governing body, Fifa, wanted a clamp-down were for shirt-pulling and in ensuring that sufficient time was added at the end of each half. "Where holding becomes pulling and a player with the ball is pulled back, that is a cautionable offence for unsporting behaviour," said Don.

As for added time, supporters can expect to see the fourth official indicating longer periods than in previous seasons – eight minutes was shown at the end of one First Division game on the opening day, although Ashworth says that may have been over-zealous. "Fifa made everyone aware that referees were not adding the full allowance and so spectators were not getting full value for money," he said. "We issued guidelines of 45 or 50 seconds per goal, and 30 seconds for a substitution, yellow card or red card. So we're expecting to see a bit more time added, maybe three minutes instead of two for the first half and up to five minutes for the second half, when you tend to get more substitutions. We've generally been supported by managers – except those who are winning 1-0 with a minute to go."

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