Referees’ tolerance of foul play annoyed fans and blighted 1950s matches

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Restrained use of yellow cards by officials meant any caution was headline news but that attitude was not always for the good of the game

13 October ~ One Thursday in the 1950s the headline on the sports page of the Woking News & Mail was that the local team’s star player, Charlie Mortimore, had been booked the previous Saturday. Today the headline news would be a game without a booking. If such things were relatively unusual then, sendings off were even rarer.

I did not see one until my 85th game, in September 1959, when Gateshead left-back Ken Moffitt departed in a 3-2 defeat at Aldershot. To nobody’s surprise, it was for “arguing with the referee” and not for serious foul play. Players who had been sent off were treated almost as pariahs. During their suspensions, which were measured in days and not in matches, they had to stay away from their clubs and they were not paid. This might in part explain why referees were reluctant to use the ultimate sanction.

In 1950s Britain, tolerance of what were often described as “robust” challenges was still widespread. Even so, we were well aware that some teams and some players were “dirty”. We Woking supporters, for example, disliked our then Isthmian League rivals Wimbledon for their win-at-all-costs attitude, which included a lot of blatant intimidation.

However, you only have to watch footage of Peter McParland’s cheek-breaking, and unpunished, assault on Manchester United goalkeeper Ray Wood in the 1957 FA Cup final, won 2-1 by Aston Villa, and hear commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s impassioned assertion that he had done nothing wrong to realise that things really were different then.

In another Cup final seven years later, West Ham left-back Jack Burkett made one particularly high challenge on Preston’s Dave Wilson and has admitted that he would have been sent off for it now. Instead referee Arthur Holland settled for having a quiet word, saying: “You don’t want to be the first to be sent off in a Cup final, do you?”

Not every game in those days was a clogging match but fans were not happy when rough play went unpunished and referees came in for criticism for tolerating it. The problem was that they lacked the powers they have today which made leniency more likely in tricky situations, as Ken Aston found when he refereed the gruesomely violent Chile v Italy game in the 1962 World Cup. Both sides were equally to blame, but only Italy were punished, having two players sent off as the hosts won 2-0.

Aston later chaired FIFA’s Referees Committee and suggested the introduction of red and yellow cards for the 1970 World Cup. Previously, the match officials just had their notebooks, and there was no written rule that two cautions meant that you were off, though a booking was in effect a warning not to do it again.

Back then, too, you could commit what we now call “professional fouls” with impunity – Pelé was crippled by more than one Portugal player in the 1966 World Cup under the indulgent gaze of another English referee, George McCabe. Meanwhile, anyone who saved a goal by handling on the line would be very unlucky to be booked..

However, even if we were not happy about some of the tackling that was tolerated, we also preferred the British “get stuck in” way of playing to what were perceived as the devious methods of foreigners. For some mysterious reason it was felt that a full-blooded crunching tackle that took the man and not the ball was less dishonest than pulling a player back by his shirt. The truth is that there were plenty of foreign butchers and some British shirt-pullers.

Despite the mountains of red and yellow cards that are now issued, football is undoubtedly less violent than it was when I started watching, with noticeably fewer broken legs. Over the years the laws have been gradually modified to enable more creative players to flourish, and they are now applied more rigidly.

We are still very far from perfection, but games like Chile v Italy, and the equally violent Intercontinental Cup ties of the late 1960s involving the European and South American club champions, could not happen now. And for that we should be grateful to those who saw the need for change and acted on it.

As for Charlie Mortimore, he turned 89 on April 12 and remains Woking’s greatest player, even though he did get booked. Once. Richard Mason

This article first appeared in WSC 368, October 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here