Like a man charged with the rehabilitation of Fagin's urchins, Stephen Lodge might be considered the master of under-statement when he admits wryly: "Considering what has happened in the last few weeks, I've got a bit of work to do."
The former Fifa official, now refereeing consultant to Leeds United, views his task – "basically, it's how to keep players out of trouble" – as a challenge. Others might consider it futile, when such names as Smith, Mills and Bowyer are broached.
We meet in the aftermath of last Saturday's game against Newcastle in which Alan Smith received his fifth yellow card of the season and, with it, a one-match suspension to add to the four-game ban that was confirmed by the Football Association on Thursday following a rejection of his appeal against a second sending-off.
It was a match in which six Leeds players were cautioned in total and Danny Mills received his second red of the season. The defender is due to miss four matches following that kick at Craig Bellamy, and the act of petulance brings Leeds' "card" record up to 57 yellows and five reds, compared, say, to Fulham, who have accumulated 30 yellows and two reds.
When Lodge, a 49-year-old local government officer from Barnsley, describes his brief as "hopefully, to develop better relationships between players and referees", cynics will respond that it is considerably overdue. But, as Lodge emphasises, Leeds are scarcely the only club with disciplinary problems, and they are at least seeking to address them. They are the first club to introduce such an initiative and have also invited Lodge to become director of their new referees' school, which will encourage 14- to 18-year-olds to take up the whistle.
Lodge, who reached the compulsory retirement age for referees last year, was brought in by manager David O'Leary in the summer, having officiated at the club's practice games. He currently counsels the first-team squad and academy players once a month about their on-pitch demeanour, although visits could become more frequent. Lodge not only reviews incidents where players have received yellow cards and advises them on how to avoid them in the future but also discusses situations where they haven't been punished, but might have been.
"I'm impressing on the players that there are certain cautions that you can't get out of: the mistimed or reckless tackle, for instance. Nine times out of 10, depending on the ferocity of the tackle, that will result in a yellow card.
Defenders are under extra pressure because they've got to cope with forwards coming at speed. If a defender can get through a Premiership season without picking up five yellow cards, which is what earns you a suspension, he'll have done damn well."
His priority is the injudicious caution or dismissal, particularly reacting to a tackle. Or, as Smith is able to analyse it, once he has departed the cauldron-like intensity of a game, "stupidity". Lodge adds: "I've been working quite extensively with Alan during the last two or three visits. He's had his problems, but he's been very responsive and he does listen.
"Alan's very conscious of the fact that he needs to channel his aggression a bit more appropriately at times. People think he's a hard lad, but I tell you what, he's one of the nicest, softest guys you could ever meet off the field. When you see people out of work and out of the pressure-cooker situation, they can be a different person, can't they?"
Mills is another who will receive the benefit of Lodge's wisdom. "I wasn't at Saturday's game, but David [O'Leary] said Danny deserved a red, and having seen it myself on TV, you could only agree with it. It's not my job to take the competitiveness out of players like Mills or Smith. Football is a highly emotional game, and situations do arise. But players have got to be able to train themselves to be more responsible." The former referee will be keeping a close eye on today's game against Arsenal at Elland Road. The corresponding fixture earlier in the season was a volatile affair which produced red cards for both Mills and Bowyer.
Lodge's counselling is conducted in an informal environment. "I'll have a word with David O'Leary and his staff, ascertain the problems as they see them, then talk to the captain [Rio Ferdinand], whose disciplinary record is actually first-class. Then I normally have a word with the players over a cup of tea and sandwich at lunchtime. It's very casual and I certainly don't have a go at them; there would be no point going in and giving a player a blasting. You've got to talk it through with them and, yes, be a shoulder to lean on if necessary. Sometimes they still feel hard done by over a particular incident even after we've gone through it, but it's important to debate it."
O'Leary contended that Smith's latest dismissal, for an arm in the face of Cardiff City's Andy Legg in the third-round FA Cup tie, was an example of a player's reputation preceding him. Lodge won't criticise today's officials but says: "I'd feel very disappointed if referees were targeting certain players. I feel it's professionally wrong to do that. In my time, I tried to work harder with those guys who were going through difficult periods.
"I used to referee people like Vinnie Jones, and he, too, had a reputation, but I found him a great guy to deal with. Over the years, when you'd refereed him a few times, you got the confidence to handle him. They knew you and you knew them. That's how relationships are built."
In Leeds' fixture at Southampton last month, referee Mike Halsey had apparently talked Smith through the game. "Some refs do help you, to be honest," the England striker told me in a recent interview. "You appreciate that when you're out there. He kept saying things to me like, 'That's good, you're doing well, just concentrate on playing football'. It can have an influence on you."
Lodge, who watches Leeds whenever he is not required for his role as a Premier League referees' assessor, fully approves of that approach. "It does tend to work. Give Mike Halsey credit for that if he helped Alan get through the game."
Lodge, who began refereeing at 19 in the Barnsley and District League, enjoyed 14 years at the top level, including six as an international referee, and was in charge of the 1997 FA Cup final. He was perhaps unusual in that his wife Susan, and son James, used to accompany him to most games. "She became accustomed to the abuse," he says. "Wives are well aware that as a referee it's unlikely you're going to get applauded."
He will continue to be appreciated at Elland Road if he can make a crucial contribution to Leeds' campaign. "If all goes well, I could be working myself out of a job," he smiles. "Just imagine, no reds or yellows. But I can't see that happening."
White heat Red mist
How today's rivals match up on the disciplinary front
LEEDS UNITED (57 yellow, 5 red)
Offenders: Mills (8 yellow, 2 red); Smith (5, 2); Bowyer (3, 1); Johnson (6, 0); Bakke (5, 0); Dacourt (4, 0); Batty, Keane, Matteo, Viduka, Duberry and Fowler (all 3, 0); Kelly, Wilcox and Harte (all 2, 0); Kewell and Woodgate (both 1, 0).
2000-01 season total: 72 yellow, 3 red
1999-2000 season total: 77 yellow, 3 red
ARSENAL (62 yellow, 5 red)
Offenders: Parlour (6 yellow, 2 red); Vieira (9, 1); Keown and Van Bronckhorst (both 5, 1); Halls (1, 1); Lauren (6, 0); Cole (5, 0); Pires (4, 0); Ljungberg and Upson (both 3, 0); Grimandi, Henry, Kanu andEdu (all 2, 0); Bergkamp, Taylor, Campbell, Adams, Jeffers, Stepanovs and Taviaridis (all 1, 0).
2000-01 season total: 48 yellow, 3 red
1999-2000 season total: 69 yellow, 5 red
Premiership's top 10 offenders, 2001-02: Mills (Leeds), Boa Morte (Fulham), Parlour (Arsenal), Repka (West Ham), Short (Blackburn), Smith (Arsenal), Vieira (Arsenal), Bellamy (Newcastle), Parker (Charlton), Warhurst (Bolton).
*Arsenal have the worst Premiership record, Leeds next.Reuse content