31 January ~ Over the last season or so an odd change has come over referees. They have become increasingly reluctant to show yellow cards in the first half of a match. We all recognise the sign language. The crossed arm swoosh indicating cut out the misbehaviour, the single finger showing a final chance and, finally, the point to prior crime scenes reminding the player of all the previous chances the referee wasted before putting his pencil to work.
Instead of a booking for a reckless tackles or persistent fouling, referees now favour a stern talking to. But I can never fathom what exactly is being said that might be news to the player. "Any more of that and you are booked!" would suffice, but instead there is often a lengthy monologue while the player stares aimlessly at the grass.
This little chat does not have to happen every week for 38-plus weeks, unless players really are so stupid that they forget what they have been told the week before about foul play. Although last season I did hear a referee in a League Two match say "No fouling, lads!" as a corner was about to be taken, so it may be that these simple rules have to be reiterated. In which case he could give the speech to both teams at once in the tunnel, allowing him free rein to dish out a yellow the first time a player shows he was not paying attention.
I have a theory to explain referees' keenness to talk. The implementation of the FA’s Respect campaign has the target of improving behaviour and the relationship between players and referees. What better way to do that than reduce one of the things that drives a wedge between the two – namely, the implementation of the latter’s authority on the former.
Players are less likely to disrespect a referee if he lets them away with a bit of dangerous play or persistent fouling. Instead he becomes a collaborator, only calling in the crime if he absolutely has to. Consequently the leniency in recording on-pitch crimes means the overall caution figures over a season is reduced and the FA can proudly trumpet that the Respect campaign has been a success.
Statistics at Premier League level show that bookings have fallen year on year over the last three completed campaigns. But has behaviour improved – or are the figures just being manipulated by the use of a verbal "orange card"? Steve Wilson