My thoughts on: Changes to improve the game
The key talking points over the last few weeks once again revolve around issues that continually irk supporters, be it poor decision-making by officials, players feigning fouls or a lack of technology to help ensure decisions are made accurately. Football is a game born in the 19th Century and has managed to remain popular due to its simplicity and hasn’t really changed a huge amount since the days of Old Etonians, Wanderers and Royal Engineers. It has however shown the capacity to evolve, and we have seen it respond positively in England in response to catastrophes such as Hillsbrough and Bradford; however, with the increasing amounts of money being invested into the sport (or is it more of an entertainment product nowadays) and the huge amount of television coverage it receives, there is now, more than ever before, a growing call for changes to be incorporated at a greater rate.I am not a fan of Game 39, the introduction of the Old Firm into the English league, the reduction of games, a Premier League 2 or any other quite selfish ideas in my view perpetrated by those clubs keen to hold onto the huge swathes of cash that comes with membership of English football’s senior division. I think there are some much more sensible and less radical amendments than can be made which would benefit the game greatly which, although appear quite straightforward to me, I doubt the ‘powers-that-be’ will be too keen to adopt too swiftly.
1. Goal-line technology
Every now and again this issue is raised due to a contentious decision that infuriates those who follow football. I think there is collective amazement that we are now in 2012 and it appears that we are no closer to introducing this sort of technology into our game and remain less forward-thinking than other sports such as rugby, cricket and tennis. My view is that I wouldn’t endorse a blanket introduction of technology; I wouldn’t be keen to see it used to determine the severity of a challenge during play or to support claims for a penalty (or non-penalty) or other decision. I believe that there are alternatives to this and I doubt this would work too effectively in practice. For instance, I have sat and watched a replay of a penalty decision and disagreed with my peers on a number of occasions; just because we are affording someone the ability to review it in slow motion doesn’t necessarily mean that they will make the ‘right’ decision, after all, a foul is down to individual interpretation and isn’t always ‘black-and-white’ whereas reviewing whether the ball has crossed the line or not clearly is.
The sooner some sort of camera is placed into the goalposts which, either automatically, or through someone else reviewing it, it can be clearly identified whether the ball has crossed the line or not, we will see a reduction in the poor decisions such as those attributed to the Frank Lampard incident in World Cup 2010 and that at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final. FIFA could easily endorse this as a requirement into international competition (i.e. for a competitive international match to take place, this technology needs to be available at the stadium), equally, UEFA could stipulate that this is a necessity to compete in European competition and could also support each of its members to incorporate it into domestic leagues. It wouldn’t happen overnight, however, I think the clamour for this advancement is such that something needs to be put in place sooner rather than later.
2. Transparency in decision-making
Although there is a general feeling that over the course of a season the number of poor decisions (or unfair, unjust, unfortunate, whatever word you choose to use) evens themselves out, and that there is a huge amount of television time and pub discussion discussing these events, I think it is about time people take responsibility for their decisions. I have a huge amount of respect for officials, they are clearly undertaking a very difficult job (which could be made easier as I hope I highlight within this blog), and they are only human. I would propose that on a Monday afternoon of each week (or 48hours post match in this era of football 24/7) there is a decision transparency review. This would allow officials and the authority (as a collective, let’s not single individuals out) to justify some of their decisions in a game. This could be instigated by each side having a maximum of 5 decision reviews per match which are submitted within 2hours of the game finishing which the necessary officials would then respond to. In my opinion this would be a huge step forward in club and official relationships; I think people have no problem if an official comes out and apologises and admits they got a decision wrong and this would be the perfect vehicle for that to happen. In addition, this would also clear up any confusion in how certain rules are interpreted as collectively we are given explanation as to why a foul was or was not given, and I would also hope this would contribute to the eradication of players feigning injury. For instance, if this system was in place, I am sure Mark Hughes would have raised the sending off of Shaun Derry at Old Trafford recently as needing explanation. I would hope that the collective response from the match officials, FA and PFA would highlight that it was an error; Ashley Young was offside in the first instance and although slight contact was made, on second review it was agreed that the Manchester Utd forward went down in the aim of gaining an advantage and that a penalty was possibly not the right decision, and subsequently the red card should be rescinded. Simple.
The notion of players and managers showing respect to officials has been ongoing for some time and to be honest, I doubt that I have seen any significant improvement in relationships or behaviour. Football fans across the country often refer enviously to our ‘egg-chasing’ cousins and the relationship that referees and touch judges have with players and how this appears to be light years away from what we see regularly on football pitches. The abiding memory for me was of Roy Keane et al surrounding Andy D’Urso (although this is the image I have, I shouldn’t single Manchester Utd out as there are many other instances on a weekly basis) and the impact this would have on young supporters and players; “if the best players and the best team in the country can do it, so can I”. I believe a zero tolerance policy should be adopted where post match, any player identified as encroaching the referee, overly disputing a decision or general harassment of any of the officials (how many times do you see a player undertake a tirade of abuse at a linesman and go unpunished?) will have a black mark placed against them. As soon as they clock two black marks then they miss the next game. Respect is either shown naturally or needs to be nurtured, and for those who we have to nurture, there currently isn’t any significant punishment to discourage their behaviour. By adopting a strategy of suspension, it wouldn’t be long before managers, supporters and club owners lose patience with players which in turn will affect their value as player or a commodity (for those more high-profile players). It is imperative that respect isn’t a hollow gesture and is something that can be seen in order to ensure that future generations don’t have to be nurtured or coaxed into being respectful, it just comes naturally.
4. Retrospective punishment
I think it would be unfair for us all to expect the officials to see, note and respond to every single infringement on a matchday; however, with television cameras so prominent at stadiums nowadays it is now becoming much easier to identify misdemeanours that have been missed. In tandem with my suggestion of a decision transparency review, I think the authorities should have the power to punish a player or team retrospectively based on specific actions. This could be managed by drawing up a matrix that identifies the required punishment for a specific action. For instance, violent conduct like throwing a punch or pushing a player over would be deemed worthy of an immediate 3-game ban; thrusting your head forward (although not actually headbutting) in a stag-like fashion gives you a 1-game ban; blatant diving (where no contact has been made) can be also be worthy of a 1-game ban and so on. Players could go on report as I mentioned previously where again, if they are found guilty of multiple diving then they receive black marks similar to if they are found to be hostile to officials; if you receive two of these then you are suspended. We have the capabilities to identify these instances so I think it should now be fair to ensure that they don’t continue to go unpunished.
5. Re-find the romance of the FA Cup
Despite what the FA will have us believe, the FA Cup is no longer considered a priority by many clubs. Those that are competing for the top-4 positions and Champions League qualification and clubs that are fighting relegation see the competition as a hindrance evidenced by team selection. Even with supporters there seems to be a general malaise to this great competition as attendances dwindle albeit this may be a result of additional spiralling admission prices. To counter this, and to reinvigorate the competition, boosting attendances and promoting the cup atmosphere that was once synonymous with the competition, I would propose there being a cap on ticket prices which could rise on a round by round basis. For instance, in round 3, tickets could either be fixed at a maximum of £15 or a percentage of what the seat would ordinarily cost, which is something I have suggested previously. People either aren’t interested or can’t afford to pay out in addition to their initial outlay on season tickets. I would also add to this that I feel the competition has been devalued somewhat by the FA’s decision to house semi-finals at Wembley indefinitely. The recent semi-finals provoked debate once again around the sense in this with two sets of supporters having to travel from the same city in the North West to London to contest a game when there are perfectly good alternatives much closer. Not only does it not take into account supporters’ costs (particularly when petrol prices are at an all-time high), it also devalues the FA Cup Final in my opinion and those of current and ex-footballers who I have read recently. The sham and financial farce that is taking place is horrendous with the FA hiding behind the fact that Wembley can house more supporters as a valid reason to hold the games there being flawed with Wembley both not being full for either game and Club Wembley supporters taking a huge chunk of the attendance. Surely The Emirates would have been an excellent venue for the Chelsea v Tottenham game and Old Trafford for the Merseyside derby? The FA need to reconsider any ridiculous notions of no replays or Wembley semi-finals and refer back to what made the FA Cup so successful for over a century in order to ensure this great competition doesn’t go the same way as the League Cup.
I’m beginning to get a little fed up with what appears to be a rather random punishment system in terms of fines. There appears to be no consistency or consideration to what the fine is supposed to represent. In an era where players are earning considerable wealth, fines are having little impact on their manner and I would guess are seen as nothing more as an inconvenience. I don’t think the PFA should be getting too heavily involved either as per their presence in the Carlos Tevez affair earlier this season; players should be responsible for their actions and a fining system should be in place that matches the considerable money which they earn. I would again endorse a simple matrix that easily recognises the punishment for each offence which could be determined by a fine as a percentage of a players wage. In addition to this, these fines should be preserved into one big pot of money which could then be reinvested lower down the league pyramid. On a bigger scale, club fines are equally ridiculous with a recent example being that Manchester City received a more hefty fine for arriving on the pitch late than FC Porto were for their fans racially abusing opposition players. Where is the sense in this? If clubs’ supporters are found guilty of racist or homophobic chanting, a much more serious form of punishment should be promoted; points deduction, transfer embargo removal from European competition; all are surely within the remit of UEFA and/or FIFA?
7. Squads and substitutes
The Premier League appears to have tried to do something about managing the size of club’s squads in an attempt to dissuade certain teams buying up multiple players to sit in the reserves and to also endorse growing young talent. English football followed European counterparts in adopting 5 substitutes and now it is 7 in the Premier League which for a short while the Football League also allowed their members. This was reduced to five again this season which I see little sense in. I understand the reasoning behind this was to scupper any advantage clubs with bigger squads (particularly those relegated from the Premier League) had although I think it has proven to be detrimental to offering opportunity to club’s youth products. I would rather see a requirement that within the seven substitutes named, at least two have to be aged 20 years or younger as at the start of the season. By doing this I can see huge benefits for clubs similar to mine where we are aiming to develop our Academy players and provide them with opportunity which is much easier if there is a degree of flexibility on the substitutes bench. I would also be keen to see this implemented in the Premier League also, again, with the notion that this is encouraging youth development as well as aiming to provide a greater level playing field as those clubs with bigger bank balances and huge squads of internationals are not benefitting further by their increased wealth and are discouraged from spending millions and millions on players who are likely to only ever sit on the bench whilst could previously have been pivotal to a side with lesser aspirations.