Saturday 21 April 2018

John Giles: If I wanted wrestling I would start watching the WWE

Read John Giles every Wednesday in The Herald.

John Giles

John Giles

ANYONE who watched Leicester and West Ham manhandle each other for 90 minutes must have wondered how the game has come to this.

An incompetent referee and two sets of defenders schooled in wrestling made for an awful mix and highlighted just how ridiculous set-pieces have become.

Sunday’s example was bad as I’ve ever seen. If I want wrestling, I can watch the WWE late at night but I wouldn’t pay to watch footballers rolling on the ground.

This a very recent phenomenon which has taken root in a major way in the last five years but has been increasing as a source of irritation for perhaps a decade.

Before that, I have no memory of shouting at the referee to sort out what now amounts to free style wrestling.

Of course there has always been physical contact at set-pieces. There is no way to avoid it when you put a dozen men into a small space and tell them to compete for a ball.


But the way I remember it and I’m sure it’s the same with generations of professional footballers almost up to the present day, you conceded a penalty if a defender  fouled in the box and a free out if you were attacking. It’s not rocket science.

Nobody complained. Why would they? There are rules about foul play and properly implemented, there should be no problem in dealing with this.

But all bad habits which continue uncorrected get worse and eventually need a radical cure.

Fortunately, there is a very easy solution to this problem, one which I believe will wipe out this practice of grappling with your opponent before the ball is kicked, after the ball is kicked and sometimes on the ground.

The fix starts with referees who have abrogated all responsibility for the penalty box at set-pieces.

They stop corner kicks to warn players when they are shoving and arm-locking, start the game and then do nothing when the same players do exactly the same thing again or worse.

Referees have a thing in their pockets called a red card. All the need is the willingness to use it.

It might take a few tries and I’m sure there would be absolute uproar over the first red cards but it wouldn’t last long.

There are many examples of this in sport. The nearest one I can think of is the scrum in rugby which for years was a mystery to all but the people in it and referees found it almost impossible to control.

The rugby authorities have tried a variety of different new rules to address problems in the scrum, not always with success, but the important point is here that they are looking to make things better.

They are already way ahead of football in the use of technology and this is an area which could help match officials return the penalty box to normality.

The issue here, of course, is about control. The referee is the agent of the English FA and by extension, UEFA and FIFA and he was granted infallibility when rules were first written down to govern the game precisely because to err is only human.

Now, when the technology is available it is beyond stubborn to persist with practices which are blatantly wrong.

The painfully slow pace of change finally brought goal-line cameras into the game and a year later, nobody even questions them any more.

They have eliminated all argument and surprise, surprise, there have been no major games this season surrounded by this kind of controversy.

I know set-pieces are fiendishly difficult to control but wave a few red cards around and I’ll bet the players would adjust their behaviour rapidly.

I know managers will always dispute a penalty or a red card given in circumstances where a defender is engaged in pulling and dragging but I guarantee you the first thing a coach will do with the same player is to give him a right ear-bashing for being so stupid.

The managers know, even if they follow the fashion and tell their players to give as good as they get. They could do a lot to stop it but they won’t because they need to win.

It is up to the referees to impose order and they are not doing it. They need help.

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