The only experts in our game work part time

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As Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers took penalty after penalty last Tuesday at Selhurst Park following the dramatic fightback at Prenton Park which enabled Tranmere Rovers to overcome Southampton, it became clear that the allure of the FA Cup remains compelling, despite the empty seats we had seen at the Stadium of Light.

As Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers took penalty after penalty last Tuesday at Selhurst Park following the dramatic fightback at Prenton Park which enabled Tranmere Rovers to overcome Southampton, it became clear that the allure of the FA Cup remains compelling, despite the empty seats we had seen at the Stadium of Light.

It became clear to me too, as, like many other supporters, I made my way home from a match listening to BBC Radio Five Live, that nobody, save hopefully the match referee, had the faintest idea what would happen if the score remained tied after 10 penalties each side, with Wycombe down to 10 men.

Why is it that the only ones not to earn their living from the game, the referees, are the ones who know the laws; and those whose profession it is, the players, the managers, the commentators and the pundits, remain blindingly oblivious?

Ken Jones wrote in these pages that Tottenham Hotspur's famous winger of the Double-winning side of 1961, Cliff Jones, accepted Bill Nicholson's view that, as none of the players really understood the laws, they should just get on with the game and leave the referee to sort things out. Nicholson's opinion was verified in the 1968 Charity Shield, in which the Spurs goalkeeper, Pat Jennings, scored with a prodigious kick which sailed over the head of Manchester United's goalkeeper, Alex Stepney. Afterwards, Jennings expressed surprise that the referee allowed the goal to stand as he had not realised a goalkeeper could score. It was still some years before youth trainees were required to study the laws, too late for many in the present generation of managers and those who proffer "expert" opinions as pundits and commentators.

It took the referee Jeff Winter to come on the radio the following day to explain the situation amid a welter of quirky quiz questions like: "What happens if the ball bursts as it hits the crossbar just as lightning strikes a corner flag?" At Selhurst, the 11-man team should have nominated one player who would not take a penalty, at the start of the proceedings. Thus each team could have taken 10 penalties and, if the scores were still level, they would have started the whole thing again.

Meanwhile, the Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, is supporting Glenn Hoddle's call, now backed by the League Managers' Association, for full-time professional referees. It is good to think that the Premier League chairmen might be opening their eyes at long last to the need to enhance the standing of referees. Maybe it will not stop there. Maybe they will also insist upon their players improving their own grasp of the laws.

And goal-line technology could usefully be embraced, 100 years after Spurs' first FA Cup Final win, when they were taken to a replay, courtesy of Sheffield United's dodgy equaliser, the referee, not ideally placed, over-ruling a linesman who flagged for a corner kick.

There was not that much controversy at the time. After all, it was only a few years earlier that neutral referees began to be used. Formerly, it had been left to the two team captains to ensure fair play, which, for offside decisions, must have been quite tricky. The captains did not need to worry about violent conduct, though, because the offence of striking an opponent was not introduced into the laws until 1914. Even though the game could become quite rough, it was unthinkable to hit somebody deliberately. Nowadays the managers sneer about "handbags"in that offensively chauvinistic manner which is peculiar to so-called professionals.

The Sheffield United goalkeeper in that Cup final of 1901 was the noted William "Fatty" Foulke, a 20-stone character who was never in any danger of contravening the bizarre FA ruling that "players' knickers must cover the knee". Once, clad in only a towel (hopefully of adequate dimensions), he pursued an unfortunate referee angrily along a corridor to open a debate on a point of dispute.

In the early days of referees they had the authority, for an experimental period, to award a goal against a team whose player deliberately handled the ball. It is ironic to recall that Fifa got into quite a strop when Jimmy Hill persuaded our own Football League to adopt a similar ruling a century later. Fifa said handling was not serious foul play in reaching a decision, which showed that administrators as well as players could suffer blind spots about the spirit of the laws.

Neville Southall, the illustrious former Everton and Wales goalkeeper, told me the other night that he thought no player should be allowed within 10 yards of the referee, an interesting extension of the FA's recent prohibition on touching referees. What would Fatty Foulke have made of this?

Grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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