Referees have clamped down with a series of red cards, but as John Williams finds out, it is not just them who should shoulder the blame
Forget just for a moment all the argy bargy about the standard of refereeing, the alleged increase in violence in the English game and Patrick Vieira’s recent disciplinary charge for spitting at Neil Ruddock. Consider this instead: Vinny Samways, remember him – impish little midfielder, quite skilful but a bit lightweight, much too faint-hearted for the English game? Spurs and Everton fans will probably recall the urgings from the stands that little Vinnie should cease fannying around and “get stuck in”.
Well, Vinny has finally responded to his critics. He was sent off recently while playing for Las Palmas, the tenth time in fewer than 90 Spanish league matches that he has taken the lonely walk. As an indicator of the sheer scale of cultural footballing difference, this surely ranks alongside Monaco players talking effusively about Glenn Hoddle, who when he played in the Principality was known locally for bringing that fierce English “team spirit” to the club. Gentle Glenn, apparently, also led the communal singing on the team bus after matches.
So, when Chelsea’s Frank Leboeuf says he is sometimes scared about the physical challenge posed by the English game, love him or loathe him, he surely means it. When Liverpool’s Sander Westerveld found himself in an on-field slapping contest with Everton’s Franny Jeffers recently, it was fear and pure astonishment that registered most on the Dutch keeper’s face. It’s all a little wake-up call that we, the Brits and our football, are still truly strange to those who continue to play a rather different game across the Channel.
It means nothing to say, in defence of the modern game, that English football is nowhere near as violent as it was in the 1970s. It isn’t, plainly. Looking back at what we accepted then has even the most committed blood-and-thunder merchants wincing now. Notwithstanding the phone-in hype about the “tarts” in the game today, who would really want to return to the era of stand-up fights and two-footed lunges from behind?
The 1970s was also a desperate period for the national team you will recall – no qualification for a major finals tournament in the years between 1970 and 1980. In short, who could even begin to contemplate deciding then how to unlock the Italians, out-think the Germans or even outplay the Norwegians if your first instinct at home was either simple survival, running as fast and as hard as you could, or working out how best to crock the opposition’s hard man?
Looking back at that period you also get that eerie sense of a land already visited. The tackle from behind was supposedly clamped down on by referees in England from 1971-72, and in 1982-83 a campaign to stamp out the professional foul had the PFA’s Gordon Taylor already complaining: “The art of tackling is dying out, but more importantly, I have had dozens of letters from fans that a game that starts off evenly balanced is ending up in a farce.” Quite so. Note, too, these were domestic “clean up” campaigns, not changes imposed, as they would be later, by FIFA.
In 1988, that nice Chris Kamara became the first player in the history of the British game – but not the last – to be convicted in court of assaulting a fellow pro. Jim Melrose copped an elbow from Chris, which shattered the Scotsman’s cheekbone. The British professionals’ defence is that it is impossible to jump for a ball without risking thumping your funny bone into someone else’s face. This is still considered risible on the continent. There, most centre-backs look like athletes who play sport with their feet rather than the putative boxers some of our own defensive stock resemble after a season in the football trenches.
The latest scares about refereeing and the English game can probably be traced back to the 1990 World Cup finals, when FIFA began to worry seriously about football’s attractiveness to the global TV audience. New directives on red cards for premeditated “professional” fouls against players in obvious goalscoring situations seemed fair enough on the face of it – though they did provoke some bizarre decisions. Law XII insisted then that all fouls are intentional – later the whole notion of intent in relation to tackling was removed from the Laws – and this new approach signalled the beginnings of the ridiculous era we are in now, when almost any mistimed tackle by the “last man” can produce a red card from English referees.
The lack of goals – and decent matches – in World Cup 1990 only stiffened FIFA’s resolve to aid attackers for the sceptical US public who, apparently, wanted more goals in World Cup 1994. This produced the automatic dismissal for blatant tackles from behind. From this point on, under FIFA’s stern glare, the “appreciative” style of refereeing traditionally favoured in England – a nod, a wink, “it’s a man’s game, let’s get on with it” – was effectively sacrificed for the automatic pilot “not my fault, guv” approach we see increasingly now.
In July 1994, David Elleray said: “The alternative style of a chat, a pat on the bottom and ‘being one of the lads’ is fading away, and those English FIFA referees who have seen the benefit of strict refereeing in Europe are being joined by a growing band of colleagues.” Amen and out, but from watching Italian and Spanish football on TV, and despite their denials, English referees are applying the new directives much more literally than are some of their colleagues abroad.
This, conveniently, relieves them from taking full responsibility for some of their actions and judgments, but it also makes no allowance at all for the style of play still favoured here. We are getting some over-literal application of tough new edicts in a footballing culture which has a very high tempo, full-on tackling and routine physical contact as a much more central and valued feature of the sport than it is elsewhere.
In Britain we have simply refused to accept that the game at the top level will now be played successfully on the floor and mainly standing up. This does not rule out good defending or tackling, but it does mean that much more strategic and thoughtful defence is now required at the top level. Yet still, virtually nothing stirs the crowd in England like a big football “hit”.
Elsewhere, things are quite different. Sami Hyypia at Liverpool, for example, a large, physically imposing defender, but one raised on the continent, tellingly tackles front-on or goes to ground only when it is absolutely necessary. His game is built, instead, much more around the modern defensive traits of reading the play and on interception.
Contrast this with some of the young hopefuls at Anfield still raised in different traditions. Jamie Carragher and even the talented Steven Gerrard, to use the English argot, “love a tackle”. Both have been coached to spend way too much time on their backsides for modern football. (This is partly, of course, why we are so poor internationally and why we keep getting our guys sent off.)
Even English attackers – Owen, Kevin Davies, Alan Smith, Jeffers – are praised by crowds and coaches for still piling in on the ground. This is all quite alien abroad. Attackers in England, enthusiastic but inept and sometimes dangerous tacklers, unsurprisingly fall foulest of all of the new refereeing order.
What makes this approach more dangerous is that players in England do seem to care a little less for their professional colleagues than elsewhere in Europe. I agree with Leboeuf on this. There is more recklessness here and perhaps even more spite among some players, egged on as they often are in their petty squabbles by sections of the crowd. The PFA might do much more to point out publicly that professional players should share more responsibility for each other’s well being.
Finally, English referees are perceived to be unaccountable and are too little respected by managers, players and supporters. This is partly because some of our officials are indeed very poor judges and some have too little intuitive feel for the sport. More to the point, however, they are still seen as outsiders; they need to be brought in and seriously warmed up.
Add all these things together and you get the kind of red card blizzard of recent weeks – heading for maybe 500 sendings off this season – which, when folk are paying good money to watch real contests, needs to be resolved urgently. This won’t happen by match officials claiming glibly that they just have “no choice”, or by players and managers pleading weakly that it’s not their fault.
Some heads need to be banged together – metaphorically speaking of course – to create a culture that respects aspects of the “English way”, but also recognises that the international game has moved on. Who knows, we may even eventually lure back that Vinny Samways. Someone get the water running.
From WSC 154 December 1999. What was happening this month