Brought to book

With new rules being implemented, Steve Parish questions how the game will be affected

New season, new rules. Can’t they leave them alone? Here we go again with more changes. The most obvious will be that the goalkeeper cannot handle the ball from a throw-in (from his own team), but can move for penalties, and that you can score direct from the kick-off. Others are just for “simplification and up-dating of the wording”.

Gone will be the agony of winning the toss and having to decide whether to kick off or choose ends – the winner chooses ends and the loser kicks off. “Ungentlemanly conduct” becomes “unsporting behaviour” – and not getting back the required distance and delaying the restart of play will mean a yellow card.

Likewise, “foul or abusive language” – a sending-off offence – is replaced by “using offensive, insulting or abusive language”. Graham Kelly has drawn attention to this, saying that players, managers, coaches, referees and administrators (not spectators, apparently) have a responsibility to ensure that the image is not tarnished by use or acceptance of offensive language “likely to incite, insult or provoke others”. That sounds like a particular and proper warning against racist comments on the field and (we’re told) doesn’t imply that offensive language that isn’t likely to provoke is alright.

Of course, the ref will now have to decide what is or is not likely to offend; so is “you f***ing daft c**t” (to another player”) alright but “you French man” a sending-off offence? Is foul language no longer deemed offensive?

The goalie can move at a penalty from side to side (running from one post to the other if he feels like it so long as he runs sideways, as he must remain on the goal line “facing the kicker”). Peter Schmeichel gave an admirable demonstration at the Charity Shield. It’s still an offence for players other than the penalty-taker to enter the penalty area before the ball is kicked, but it’s no longer cautionable.

Apart from enforcing the four-steps rule (that’ll be the day) referees must judge that a goalkeeper holding the ball for more than five or six seconds is time-wasting and give an indirect free kick. Will that prompt more attacking play or will it mean more rushed booting the ball up to the other end?

Either way, it probably means the four-steps rule (to stop timewasting) is superfluous, and so long as they get rid in the allotted time, we might as well let goalies bounce the ball again, or take as many steps as they want. The cry of “Steps!” will become “Seconds, ref!” Is “That was never six seconds, you f***ing daft c**t” mere dissent or offensive language?

Perhaps the favourite new chant for this season will be “You’re crap – from the half-way line” – until someone gets one in from the kick-off. And “the fastest goal ever” will now have to be measured in nano-seconds.

More misery looms for the First Division’s major clubs who are likely to have three internationals called up for matches, allowing them to postpone games. While the Premier League have kept dates before internationals fixture-free, the First Division list is once again at the mercy of late cancellations as and when the associations get round to announcing squads (and even very late postponements if late replacements to the squads take out a third player).

The first major casualty looks like being Sunderland v Man City on Saturday August 16th – the big opener for the Wearsiders’ new stadium. It could be brought forward to the Friday evening to meet the five-day call-up deadline, but even though it’s almost bound to be moved no-one can arrange it until the squads are announced.

Then clubs could have two matches postponed in the first week in September (midweek and Saturday) and another three during the autumn. And to top it all, someone’s picked FA Cup 3rd round replay week for friendly internationals!

And now, living proof that it really takes a computer to mess things up. When the First Division’s best away-supported team (Man City) goes to the lowest away-capacity ground (Crewe), guess when they fix it for? Oh yes, Boxing Day…

From WSC 127 September 1997. What was happening this month