Those of you who have taken the time and trouble to read this column in the past will know that I am far from happy about leaving the Boleyn Ground. But there is one thing about the old place that I don’t miss – and that’s the old boy sitting a few rows in front of me who leaped from his seat and brandished an imaginary yellow card every time a member of the opposition committed the slightest misdemeanor.
Somehow, he managed to look every bit as pompous as the idiotic officials who are all too keen to wave the real thing – be it yellow or red – in front of West Ham United’s finest (yes Mr Dean, I’m talking about you).
Cards were introduced at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico – the brainchild of English referee Ken Aston. Personally, I’m not a fan. A sending off is a sending off , and you don’t need to signal it with a brightly coloured piece of cardboard. Meanwhile the yellow card – or a booking, as us old dinosaurs like to think of it – is meaningless at best and, at worst, positively unfair on the team that has been off ended against.
Imagine you are in a relegation scrap (which, let’s face it, is not difficult if you’re a Hammer). You’re one-nil down with 10 minutes to go and the one striker you’ve got who’s actually capable of scoring occasionally is just about to burst into the penalty area and shoot when their international defender unceremoniously takes him out.
It’s outside the box, so no penalty. And there are other defenders between the action and the goal, so it’s not a sending off . Instead, as the jeers turn to cheers, the ref awards a free kick and sternly produces the yellow card that demonstrates he is firmly in control of the situation. No doubt somewhere in the stadium my former East Stand neighbour is on his feet delightedly turning to those around him claiming credit for the decision.
Sadly, when the uproar has finally died down, the free-kick comes to nothing, you don’t get another sniff and consequently lose the game. That’s bad enough, but to make matters considerably worse that booking has resulted in the international defender being suspended for the next game – which is against your main relegation rivals. He committed the foul against you, yet they benefit. That’s double jeopardy, and it’s inherently unfair.
If, on the other hand, association football had finally taken its head out of its rectal passage and looked at what other sports do, the villain of this piece could have spent the final 10 minutes of that game in sin bin, maybe allowing your team to equalise, and possibly even then go on to win in time added on.
The International Football Association Board, the sport’s rule maker, is asking the four UK associations and Fifa to trial the idea in grassroots football, with a view to eventually considering whether or not it should be introduced into the professional game. Sadly, I can’t see it ever happening in a sport whose governing body gives the impression it would still have jumpers for goalposts if it could.
But it’s what they’ve done in ice hockey ever since I can remember. Other sports such as basketball and water polo have some form of penalty box too. The sin bin was introduced to rugby union in 2001. In that sport’s last world cup the average points conceded by a team with a player in the sin bin was a fraction over three – not a huge number in rugby terms, but potentially enough to change a low-scoring game.
There are a few other lessons that football could learn from other sports. The video review wouldn’t be a bad place to start. And you could follow that up with the idea that referees actually communicate their decisions to the fans, as they do in America’s NFL.
I simply don’t accept the argument that taking a brief pause to discover what had actually happened rather than relying on the instant (and too often incorrect) assessment of a referee and his assistants will ruin the enjoyment of the supporters.
Take the farce that we witnessed in the game against WBA. Craig Dawson was on the ground long enough to have screened the first four episodes of Star Wars, let alone allow an off-field official time to adjudicate on whether or not Sofiane Feghouli’s 17th minute effort should have stood.
And while they were looking at that, referee Michael Oliver could have shared with us the minor detail of why he had disallowed it. Was it for offside (which was clearly wrong) or a foul by Michail Antonio on Ben Foster (which was nowhere near as clear cut as Foster’s foul on Antonio which caused him to miss the ball entirely when the goal was at his mercy). At least we would have known – which has to be better than sitting in the stand fuming in a cloud of uncertainty.
While we are on the subject of officials, something really has to be done about (a) improving the quality of their decision making and (b) the utter contempt in which they are clearly held by players. The first item could and should be done with the use of technology. The second should start the moment a kid first pulls on a pair of boots and, again, football might like to take a look at other sports here.
As anyone who has ever played cricket will tell you, an umpire’s decision is final. You might grumble a bit, but you simply accept it and get on with the game. (At the top level, of course, you can turn to the sort of technology that football refuses to embrace – which regularly proves the umpire was right in the first place.)
And in rugby, you soon learn to keep your lip buttoned. I had the dubious pleasure of playing the game at school. I was a forward, one of the grunt and groan boys whose basic job it is to bulldozer your way forward as far as possible before giving the ball to the backs (aka the pretty boys who think the sun shines out of their earholes). It’s hard graft battling through the mud when you’re up against eight other large lumps of humanity who are doing their best to stop you.
So, having wrestled with the opposition until your lungs are fit to burst in pursuit of a few vital feet, you really don’t appreciate it when some smart-mouthed three-quarter questions the referee’s decision to award a penalty against you and you are marched back 10 yards. Another ill-advised comment means another 10 yards. Honestly, that’s all the ref has to do. Mr Motor Mouth’s teammates take care of the rest in the dressing room after the game.
If only it were so easy to make football’s governing body see the error of their ways.