Lack of punishment in the 1950s was not down to players being less physical

icon refs11 December ~ On September 21, 1959 Aldershot hosted Gateshead in the fledgling Fourth Division. And at the 85th attempt I managed to see a player sent off. The culprit was Gateshead left-back Ken Moffitt, and his crime was "arguing with the referee”. It is difficult today to realise how rare it was then for players to be sent off. 

Because it was so rare, the shame attached to a sending off was enormous. This was reflected in the way in which the culprits were punished. For the length of their suspensions, which were temporal rather than a fixed number of matches, they were not just banned from playing, but from their clubs altogether. If they wanted to keep fit, they had to train alone.

Being suspended for a certain number of days was inherently unfair, because obviously the number of games a player missed could vary. For example, in the notorious winter of 1962-63, a player sent off on Boxing Day might not have missed any games because some teams did not play again until March. But at least it meant that they could return to their club when their suspension was over.

There were no yellow and red cards then. They were the brainchild of Ilford referee Ken Aston, and were first employed in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Aston, who had refereed the gruesomely violent Chile v Italy game in 1962, got the idea after confusion as to whether West German referee Rudolf Kreitlein had booked some England players in the 1966 quarter-final in which he dismissed Argentina’s Antonio Rattín.

There was no law then that said that two bookings meant a sending off, but unofficially a booking was a warning. Do it again and you are off. It rarely happened, though. This is probably because even to be booked you had to commit an offence that today would probably lead to a red card, and players did not often do that twice in a match. Indeed, if sendings off were very rare, even bookings were not that common back in the 1950s and early 1960s. I would say that the majority of the games I saw then ended without anyone having "had his name taken". If that happened today, there would be serious questions about the commitment of the players.

Matches without bookings would seem to imply that football was less physical, but that is not the case. It was far more physical because the laws were applied in a very different way. You only have to hear Kenneth Wolstenholme vigorously defending Peter McParland’s cheek-breaking challenge on Ray Wood in the 1957 FA Cup final as perfectly fair to understand that.

The exponential increase in red and yellow cards since those days is actually a sign that violence is not tolerated to the extent that it once was, and the game is richer for it. A World Cup game such as Chile v Italy is unthinkable today, and broken legs are now quite an unusual occurrence. The challenges that used to cause most of them, once considered merely “vigorous”, are now seen for what they usually are – violent play. Superficially the game we watch today is the same as it was 60 years ago, but in reality it has changed enormously. A lot of what was allowed then would have fans cringing today.

The power which television now exerts over football is often baleful, but I wonder whether in this case its influence has not been benign. Violent play that was once only seen by those who were at the match can now be witnessed by a worldwide audience, and it is not a good advertisement for the game. Television audiences do not want to see a sanitised version, but neither do they want to see players carried off in agony. And Aldershot won the game, 3-2. The winner was an own goal. It wasn’t Gateshead’s day, or, as it turned out, their season, as they were voted out of the League at the end of it. Richard Mason

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