Referees must keep cards close to their chests

Steve Coppell, who last week announced his resignation as chief executive of the League Managers' Association, argues that a change in the rules would allow for a more competitive and watchable game
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The Independent Online
My decision to try and return to football management has cau-sed quite a stir in those closest to me. How can a reasonably sane young man, having endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for nine years as a manager, actually want to go back to that existence?

My career move might seem even more inexplicable given that I have been in a position during my sabbatical to represent the group of people with the most experience in the game - the managers - in various footballing forums. In doing so, I have been able to ensure that managers have a significant influence on the future direction of the game.

The degree of puzzlement has been amplified by the current hysteria that surrounds football, both on and off the pitch. Because of my involvement in the Premier League inquiry into the game's finances, it would be wrong to air my views here on off-the-field matters. However, the apparent "refereeing crisis" is something that has occupied my thinking for a good part of this season.

On behalf of the LMA, I have been actively trying to improve communication between referees, managers, players and supporters. At the beginning of the season, the new Fifa mandatory guidelines - including the instruction to referees always to show yellow cards for certain offences - did not cause any major tremors in the game.

The World Cup had shown the positive effect the changes could have, and the pre-season meetings here between referees, managers and players ensured that everyone knew exactly what was going to happen. There was a willingness by all parties to support the new initiative.

The football at the beginning of the season, and to a large extent now, was the brightest and most fluent I had seen in English football. Everyone was congratulating each other, and the most important people in football - the spectators - appeared to be the biggest winners.

Then the secondary effects began to come through. Referees, constantly reminding us that they are only human, had genuine mistakes highlighted, replayed and dissected by the television pundits, whose attitude changed from complimentary to highly critical overnight.

Players, and more especially managers, who had tried to conform to the new spirit despite the apparent injustices, have slowly returned to old ways. Now refereeing decisions are regularly being called into question because players and managers know that an offence can result in a red card and suspension.

The effect of the large number of yellow and red cards is growing all the time. More and more players are being suspended for reaching 21, 31 and 41 disciplinary points, with some even verging on 51. Key players are missing large chunks of the season, and many believe it is not the players' fault.

Most importantly, it is the paying customers who are missing out. We have all seen that it is not much fun watching 11 play against nine. When you buy a season ticket at the beginning of a season, you do not want to find one of your team's best players forced to sit out four games at a vital time of the year.

In a game as physically competitive as football, indiscipline will always be with us. What we therefore need to look at is the way that transgressions are punished.

The biggest criticism made of referees has always been an alleged lack of consistency. I believe that referees this season have been more consistent than ever before. However, more consistency brings robotic performances, with referees unable to use common sense. It means that if a player kicks the ball away in a meaningless show of petulance, then he must be cautioned.

I have been told of one non-League defender who, coming to the end of a long career without ever being booked, found himself being cautioned for a poorly-timed tackle. When he complained to the referee about his proud record being destroyed, he was promptly sent off for dissent.

Consistency means that the offence is being punished with no consideration of the personalities involved, the stage of the game, or the often understandable emotions involved.

At this stage of the season, when relegation and its consequences are a real threat, many managers have reacted loudly. With the press quite happy to encourage this, many managers have put their tongues into overdrive, and quite a few have to answer Football Association charges as a consequence.

More and more clubs will be sending videos to the FA, hoping that referees will review their decisions and perhaps change a sending-off to a caution. There will also be a growing chorus of appeals for a fourth official to use current television wizardry to assist the referee. In short, the pressure for decision-making perfection has produced more controversy to fill the back pages.

Fifa has been inventive and innovative in its rule adjustments over the past couple of seasons. Many people now feel that two new proposals would eliminate a number of problems in the game.

The first concerns dissent and kicking the ball away. These offences have led to a succession of yellow and red cards this season. Where these offences have been committed after the award of a free-kick, I believe a more appropriate punishment would be to move the free-kick 10 metres closer to the offender's goal. This would reduce such transgressions to a minimum and make for a better spectacle, as rugby found after introducing a similar rule.

The second change would deal with what was been the main area of controversy this season - the large number of sending-offs after fouls which have denied goal-scoring opportunities, whether inside or outside the penalty area. Surely the ideal punishment for this should not be a red card, but to give the attacking team back their goal-scoring opportunity.

This could be done by awarding a penalty, even if the offence is committed outside the box. For example, under this rule Neil Ruddock would not have been sent off in Liverpool's FA Cup game against Burnley last week, but Burnley would have been awarded a penalty. There would still be huge arguments, of course, but at least with 22 players on the pitch there would be a better contest for the full 90 minutes.

To be fair to the FA, I know for a fact that they have tried to propose the immediate 10-metre punishment to Fifa, which has a very complicated procedure for changing the rules. However, because of lack of support, the proposal was not accepted.

It would seem that Fifa only like rule changes proposed from within, and initiated by the prospect of financial gain from World Cup television income. Perhaps we should hope for every World Cup to be held in the United States.