Premiership referees chief Philip Don has revealed that he is encouraging his 21-strong group of élite officials to reduce the number of "soft" cautions they mete out. "We've got to go out and manage games and communicate without being card-happy," he insisted.
A cure for yellow fever, the strain affecting certain Premiership refereeing performances, is long overdue, according to many in the game. While disciplinary problems vary greatly from match to match, the fact is that Mark Halsey, the most parsimonious of the card-brandishers had, before yesterday, produced only nine yellows and two reds in his five games this season - just over two cards a game. Yet, at the "bottom" of the league, we find Rob Styles with 31 yellows and five reds from five games, an average of over seven cards a game.
Consult with any section of supporters, any panel of pundits, and, indeed, players themselves, about what aspect of refereeing most irritates them and the answer will almost certainly be the spectacle of a yellow card being produced for what appears to be little more than a foul, particularly if the misdemeanour is then followed by a second, culminating in a dismissal. Second is the failure of an official to deal adequately with the career-threatening tackle.
Interpretation will always play its part, but Don, 50, who, it was announced on Friday, is to leave his post as select group manager because of a reorganisation of his department, maintained: "Where there are reckless challenges which endanger players' careers I believe we should act within the letter of the law, but there are occasions where officials should apply the spirit of the law."
He added: "I meet every fortnight with the referees, we go through videotapes of particular incidents and I say to some, 'Could you have managed that better? Could you have managed that situation without a caution? Was that dismissal actually a dismissal?'. The fact is we have had some soft yellows. To be fair, often referees will put their hands up and say, 'Yes, I could have handled that better'."
Don's comments come at a time when Premiership referees are being scrutinised as never before. Judgement is now handed down not only by referee assessors, as they have done in the past, but also by Premier League match delegates. Assessors, who are former referees, examine technical aspects of the official's performance. The match delegates at every Premiership game survey health and safety, crowd issues, players' behaviour and also provide a view on the officials, reporting on how they manage and communicate and how they handle contentious incidents.
At the end, the match delegate, who is either a member of the Professional Footballers' Association, the League Managers' Association or an administrator, speaks to both managers for their views on the referee and assistants. Until this season, each club used to mark referees, but, according to Don, this new method "gives us a much more balanced view on the referee's performance".
He added: "Assessment is more rigorous than it was. It has put the officials under more pressure, but the fact is that we pay them to get the critical decisions right. That is something they have to accept. We're talking here about the major decisions: the penalty given that should not have been; the player sent off who shouldn't have been."
While our officials' displays tend to be compared unfavourably with those of the better continental referees, it is never that simple, as anyone at Ibrox on Wednesday will testify. It was not one of Anders Frisk's better evenings, one which the Swedish referee concluded - erroneously - by dismissing vehement claims from Manchester United's Paul Scholes that he had been felled in the home area by Rangers' Henning Berg. That incident epitomised Frisk'slaissez-faire approach, which he took to extraordinary lengths.
What it confirmed was the difficulty referees face in satisfying those who demand consistency, those who ask for common sense, those who prefer that the game should be allowed to flow and those who believe in firm discipline.
Old Scary Eyes, the Italian Pierluigi Collina, was much lauded for his handling of the Turkey-England game; yet he failed to penalise Hakan Sukur for an outrageous dive, and merely yellow-carded Nicky Butt and the Turkish goalkeeper Rustu Recber on occasions when they could have been dismissed. If an English referee had acted, or shall we say, failed to act, in those circumstances, would the media been quite as approving as they were of Collina, a man who has on more than one occasion been suspended by the Italian federation? One suspects not.
Among the other contentious issues debated after Premiership games this season is that of over-zealous assistants adjudging that goalkeepers have moved forward before penalty kicks have been taken: "I cannot say anything to the referees which is contrary to the law," said Don. "But there have been a couple of incidents we've seen where assistants have been right technically, but not in the spirit of the law, and indicated that kicks should be retaken. I've told them that."
Many decisions are incorrect because of the referee's positioning, and Don is anxious for improvements in this area. "At Arsenal last month, Alan [Wiley] was not in the most advantageous position. If he had been five yards further to his left he would have been behind [Robert] Pires and seen the challenge [by Portsmouth's Boris Zivkovic] and made the correct decision. Instead he heard a noise, put two and two together and made five. He accepts that."
Fans will forgive Wiley; what they don't appreciate is a proliferation of unnecessary yellows brandished by the Premiership's card-carrying fraternity. It will be intriguing to discover whether some officials harden up their act and the statistics change dramatically over the season.Reuse content