Last summer the chairmen of Football League clubs, at their annual conference, announced that there was going to be blitz on cheating and gamesmanship. By the unanimous vote of the seventy two clubs, they agreed to tell their managers to cut out diving, time wasting and feigning injury by their players. These are of course all yellow card offences. Referees were also to be asked to take more positive action in two other areas. One of these was the prevention of quick free kicks. I’m sure everyone will know the sort of thing that happens. When a free kick is given, players of the opposite side take up position in front of the ball to delay and if possible prevent the kick being taken quickly to give their colleagues time to get into defensive positions. There is little doubt that these delaying tactics are the result of coaching, the players are instructed to take up these positions and castigated by the coaches if they fail to do so to the advantage to their opponents. And yet, this is completely in violation of the Laws of the Game and an offence that is punishable by a yellow card. The Law says, ‘a player shall be cautioned and show the yellow card if he fails to respect the required distance, when play is restarted with a corner kick, free kick or throw-in’.
So why, you may ask, do referees do nothing about it? A good question. The answer I feel is that referees are reluctant to caution players for what are seen as purely technical offences. This means it has become accepted in the game not only by the players and their coaches but by referees and their assessors. If referee fails to caution a player who removes his shirt in celebration after scoring, the referee will be marked down by his assessor. If however, he fails to caution a player who stands over the ball then there will be little comment from the assessor. If a player in that position should stick out his foot and actually stop the ball when it’s been kicked, then it becomes a little more clear cut and the yellow card would be expected to appear from the referee’s pocket.
The other specific point that the chairmen wanted action from referees was the stealing of ground at the throw-in. I remember one referee writing in a refereeing magazine, advising that we don’t insist on the ball being thrown in where it went out as instructed in the Laws of the Game. It only irritates the players he said. At the top level referees are a little random in their approach, some will make players go back but others seem to be happy to let them take 10 or 15 yards, much to the annoyance of the opposition supporters. Consistency and conformity is what the Football League chairmen are asking for.
I can only assume that the coaches passed on their chairmen’s deliberations to their players. I know that they were made clear to all the Football League referees when they met for a briefing at the beginning of the season. I have not seen any Football League games this season but I think the referees have been complying with the wishes of the chairmen, if the increased number of cautions issued is anything to go by. The big question however, is has it reduced the number of such incidents? In other words has the understanding that they will now be punished, made the players refrain from committing these offences, which is of course the objective? Sadly, it seems that hasn’t yet sunk in, as the cautions still continue to rise. Let us hope that his changed before the season ends and justifies the chairmen’s decision.