Wrong arm of the law

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Tributes to Sir Stanley Matthews, who will be 80 next week, inevitably touch upon the disposition that enabled him to turn out for more than three decades in the colours of Stoke City and Blackpool, and a long time internationally, without incurri ng a referee's wrath.

You have only to ponder that statistic for an instant to infer what it implies: a temperament so unique, a measure of self-control so impressive, that Matthews stands supreme in the annals of sporting rectitude.

In truth, any number of Matthews's contemporaries, including some callous defenders, managed to avoid the disgrace then associated with disciplinary procedures. Players were rarely sent off and only for acts of unmitigated violence. As for cautions, a severe dressing-down was usually considered sufficient.

My own feeling, which nobody is required to share, is that the problem of establishing a better relationship between players and referees should be addressed in the light of history. Football has changed, but not that much.

What I detect in the game today is a growing and perhaps irreversible conviction that, in their efforts to make football more appealing, the authorities have laid down an interpretation of law out of all proportion to infringements.

After many years of devoted research in many places, no sovereign remedy has been found for cynical excesses, nor has anybody hit upon a formula acceptable to the players and their employers.

In fact, things appear to be getting worse, the rift widening. A proliferation of yellow cards, summary dismissals in accordance with directives from the sport's world governing body, Fifa, and the pressure brought to bear on referees by the presence of assessors, give rise to an impression of unsympathetic treatment. Indeed many managers suspect referees go around looking for trouble, so fearful of offending the administration that they frequently overstep the mark. As an old international put it, "Some of the decisions are so ridiculous it is frightening to imagine how some of the players from my time would have reacted."

The present lamentable state of affairs was highlighted on Monday when the West Ham defender, Alvin Martin, a veteran trouper and a credit to his trade, was sent off against Sheffield Wednesday.

According to a number of impartial and reliable observers, all former professional players and by reputation fair-minded, it appears that the referee, Paul Danson, completely misread Martin's intentions, dismissing him for a dangerous tackle when he was simply trying to remain upright.

The specious theory that discretion is a sign of weakness in a referee gained considerable impetus during last summer's World Cup in the United States when the flourishing of yellow and red cards became an irritable fashion. Unquestionably, there was a case against defenders coming in dangerously from behind, but it reached ludicrous proportions.

I was mentioning this to a football official the other day. Typically, he was not greatly moved. The conflict between players and referees has always been with us, sums up what he went on to say. As for the incident that cost Blackburn Rovers an equalising goal against Manchester United last Sunday, he saw it only as a difference of opinion.

This is nothing new. It happened as much in Matthews's time as now, though the stakes are higher. The most troublesome aspect is that people are taking up one of two positions, neither of which is necessarily closer to the truth because they've been over-simplified.

However, it is tempting to suggest that the fault lies with the law-makers, the prose which conceals the meaning of the code, and pompous officials who have difficulty understanding it.