The black and white law men

Norman Fox hears the defence of referees for following their marching orders
Click to follow
Something unusual happened at Middlesbrough recently, and it was not that Ravanelli failed to score. Bryan Robson saw his side lose but still complimented the referee on using his common sense and an "old-fashioned approach". The referee was Martin Bodenham.

Bodenham is one of the Premiership referees with whom most players would sympathise if, like Paul Durkin at Wimbledon last Monday, he was whacked by a ball (accidentally, of course) in his delicate parts. If it happened to, say, David Elleray, his would not be the only eyes to water. Tears of laughter would flow from players and managers everywhere from Tottenham to Turkey (he recently sent off a Turkish international in Brussels where the visiting fans went on to rip up part of the stadium). Elleray represents that group of Premiership referees accused of being fastidious to the point of absurdity.

Bodenham, although he had issued 18 cautions up to yesterday, leans towards the sympathetic approach. The referees' critics, of whom managers form a large proportion, accuse them of not living in the real world and being inconsistent. What they mean is that they want referees to be as consistently player-friendly as those who keep alive the Clive Thomas school of chatty, pat 'em on the backside and get on with the game way of officiating that Fifa jumped on at the last World Cup. What most of them conveniently forget is that the tournament in the States gave positive football some breathing space, time wasting was greatly reduced and entertainment prospered.

The Premiership referees will hold a seminar next weekend but Ken Ridden, the Football Association's Director of Refereeing, is adamant that in spite of cautions now running at a record 3.78 per game and yet more criticism over inconsistency, there will be no dramatic reaction and no one will be taken to task for acting too dictatorially or too kindly.

"With our new short list of only 19 referees, consistency ought to be much more achievable," Ridden said. "But anyway I think referees have become more consistent since the last World Cup. Managers ask for common sense, understanding and tolerance. They ought to ask themselves if the deviations in those words are compatible with total consistency. They can't have it both ways."

According to Ridden, players have accepted the various directives more readily than their managers. "There were some defenders whom I would not have believed would accept that if, for instance, they make contact with the man before the ball they are going to give away a direct free- kick. But they are falling in line." He refuses to accept the two main criticisms, that British referees are more card happy than their counterparts abroad ("in the past two seasons referees in Italy and Germany have given more on average per match") or that referees in the Premiership are lenient on the tackle from behind, as suggested recently by Chelsea's French defender Franck Leboeuf.

"People tell me that they perceive that in the Premiership the referees are more zealous on this than many of our Continental colleagues, but I think the reduction in cautions last season was encouraging. It didn't show that referees had eased up from their obligations. It proved that players knew more where they stood, and we should give them credit for that," Ridden said.

Critics of the two latest recruits to the Premiership, Graham Barber and Mike Riley, who at present lead the cautions list, hinted that they had come through a new "fast track" method of qualifying. "That was not so," Ridden said. "They qualified in the normal way, but they had a tough baptism. These days it's a big jump into the Premiership because of the tremendous exposure and pressures caused by television. But for the past two or three years we have been trying to speed things up."

Ridden, Elleray and Fifa share the same philosophy: the laws are not flexible and that if players and managers accepted them (or even understood them) there would be far fewer problems. Elleray and the majority of Premiership referees apply the laws as written; some others, including a lot in the Football League, do not. The latter group are the popular ones, but Elleray maintains: "You can't have consistency and flexibility."

Consistency and television replays of controversial incidents remain the crux of all the problems. While the FA are not totally opposed to the use of cameras for deciding on some things, probably including offside, they refuse to countenance the idea revived recently by Uefa's president, Lennart Johansson, of having a referee in each half. Ridden said: "We are already accused of inconsistency. What if we had two referees acting differently at either end of the pitch?" The last word on a game of two halves, perhaps.