You may remember, some time ago, I had a long conversation with my friend Pete which resulted in me claiming a series was on the way. I wanted to rethink football, from the bottom up, but instead, I did one article on domestic cups and got no further.
Well, a month on, and I’ve forgotten much of what we spoke about. However, while cleaning my desk last night (ok, I was looking for something; I never clean my desk), I came across some notes I’d made, so I can now do the rest of the series. These might not be as long, or as wide-ranging as the cup article (one hour later, it turns out they are), but I do have some thoughts on discipline. Much of our conversation was around trial by video, the whole Afolayan and Montsma incidents, but given the recent Andy Robertson saga, I think there’s scope for widening my ideas here.
I’ve also gone off on a tangent a little and started talking about club discipline as well. I get carried away easily.
This may be a controversial statement, but I think the standard of officiating is actually quite strong at this level. All referees make mistakes, but all people make mistakes; defenders misplace passes and strikers scuff shots. Generally, the quality in the division is better than 20 years ago. You make mistakes, but it doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job. Generally, we’ve moaned less about referees this season than most, and when we have, it’s not always been justified. I think back to the Ipswich game, where in the heat of the moment, we yelled blue murder, but with reflection, the official got the decisions right. Generally, officials are not bad, and with the likes of Andrew Kitchen and Sunny Gill, there are some great refs on the scene.
What we need to do in football is make their job easier. That starts with discipline on the field, and I think the proposed rules around who can and cannot approach the ref are the right way to go. We got punished late last year for surrounding the referee during our EFL Trophy game against Accrington – they did as well. I haven’t seen us do the same for a while, maybe we’ve looked to avoid it, so perhaps those fines should keep coming. Clubs will soon learn to control their players if they get regular fines from the EFL (or worse, as I explore below).
I would also like to see officials be mic’d up for the duration of the game, and foul and abusive language punished as well. It might sound draconian, and I’m not saying players should be punished for swearing, I’m not Mary Whitehouse, but if they’re swearing at the ref, then why not? Young players imitate their idols, and for many, League One footballers are idols. Ensuring that respect isn’t just a buzzword, but rather that it’s commonplace throughout the game, will filter down, 100%.
Also, and this is so obvious, I think there needs to be a clearer route for former players to move into officiating. I don’t know how you’d go about enticing them unless we went down the route of professional referees. If a player retires injured at 27, lost, and without a future career path, perhaps a £50k a year job as a League One referee might be enticing. It’s obviously not as straightforward as that, money has to come from somewhere, but football is awash with money, and it doesn’t always find its way to the right people. Maybe, if a percentage of every transfer in the Premier League had to go to a referee’s fund to pay for full-time officials, we could get some former players, who understand the game, to enter our referee structure.
Football in 1900 – played with a pig’s bladder, formations akin to 1-1-8, on pitches of mud with a few newspaper inches at best telling fans what had happened a day later. Football in 2023, every game filmed, teams allowed to field no fewer than 16 different players throughout, and tactical depth that would seem alien to those 100 years ago. It’s almost all changed, literally everything, even the styles of shirts players wear. The one thing that has not changed is the game is still officiated by two assistant referees and a man in the middle.
I think we need to look again at how things are officiated. I’m not talking VAR (in the immortal words of Skrillex, f*ck that), but instead, more bodies around the outside of the pitch. I’d propose having four assistants at every game – there’s the money within the EFL to do so, and perhaps if the television rights for our divisions went to a company that actually screened games, there would be even more. I just think it’s hard for a single assistant to spot whether a ball has gone out for a throw-in in the corner from 70 yards away. I think when play is on the other side of the field, and there’s a blatant infringement, we can all see it, but a referee and assistant cannot. Would it really hurt to have one for each quarter of the pitch?
There have been trials where we’ve had officials at the end of the pitch, but that’s not always practical at grounds, especially not at the Bank, where there’s little room between the goals and the stands at either end. There is room for assistants all around, and I think we should use it. It would create more potential referees as well, with a wider pool of positions that could eventually lead to becoming a referee.
Suspensions & Appeals
I’m all for suspensions, and I think that should match the crime. When it comes to crime and punishment, it might surprise people to know I’m quite right-wing – I think the best way to invest in the prison service, for example, is more guards, more walls, and more bars. The best way to clean up football is to punish severely and consistently. For instance, an elbow Afolayan-style gets the same punishment as a flailing arm from Montana? It wouldn’t on my watch. Punches, kicks, stamps, the sort of thing you’d get arrested for in the street, should come with long mandatory suspensions. Thrown an elbow? Three games. Connected? Two more. Done and dusted.
I don’t mind players being punished for the things they do, but I do object to mistakes not being overturned, or even appealed, because of an archaic and unfair appeals system. The basis of our legal system outside of football is thus – you’re innocent until proven guilty, and you have the right to appeal. If you commit a crime, get seven years (let’s say), and appeal, then the sentence isn’t doubled to 14 if the appeal is rejected. If you’re found guilty of something by the FA, and you appeal, it is very rarely overturned. In fact, people often don’t appeal simply out of fear of having suspensions doubled. It’s madness. Teams shouldn’t fear the appeal, and if they do appeal, it should be heard by a separate, independent body. If referees were full time, perhaps this could be one of their tasks during the week.
The Accrington ruling really annoyed me back in January. Both teams were charged with surrounding the referee. We presented evidence that we said proved we were not guilty. The FA disagreed, and fine us more than Accrington. The foul that led to the incident was committed by an Accrington player, the video evidence shows them around the ref and fewer of our players, and because we argued our case, we got fined more. How is that fair?
The problem you have is nobody trusts the FA’s process. They’re always seen to protect their own, rightly or wrongly. I’m not sure that’s the case, but they do seem set up to punish clubs who don’t just fall into line. That isn’t acceptable, and whilst fair punishment should always be metered out where applicable, the system needs an overhaul to prevent it from becoming insular and closed.
Here’s my radical idea, once a fair system of appeal was in place. Teams whose players are proven to have committed violent acts, such as the Afolayan elbow, should be docked points. Perhaps that should be for a pile-up of offences, so you get the first hit (literally) for free, but two or three and you lose a point. That would soon stop some of the more unsavory stuff from happening, wouldn’t it?
The issue you have now is the FA hit clubs with financial punishments, and that’s not proportional. Let’s say Accrington and Fleetwood players surround the referee in their encounter later today. The FA deems both to have committed an offence, and neither claim innocence, so both are fined £2000. Is that a fair punishment? Accrington, living hand-to-mouth, having to pay the same as Fleetwood, who thought nothing of committing £12,000 per week on two strikers just to be midtable? What if the two teams were Morecambe, who are skint right now, and Ipswich? Is it fair to hit both with a £2000 fine? It sounds fair, but the impact at one club is far less than the impact at the other. However, in football, there’s one commodity that is as valued by Manchester United as it is by Maidenhead. Points.
I’m all for points deductions for certain offences. I’m not talking about a red card for a foul, or something like that, but genuine violent conducted, off-the-ball headbutts, stuff like that, is severe and should be stamped out. I go on about that elbow, but it was revolting. If I go out tomorrow, and on my way to the ground, I target someone and smash them in the face with my elbow, I’m getting arrested. It’s premeditated, and it’s seemingly becoming more apparent, or certainly more provable in the video age. You’d soon stop it if clubs lost a point because of it.
Whilst we’re at it, this ‘suspended punishment’ for financial irregularities is rubbish. A suspended points deduction is not a punishment. Arguing over which season a punishment is applied to, is not a proper punishment. We talk about cracking down on shady ownership, but when things are not done properly, the EFL back out of proper punishment. Peterborough, for instance, have just broken a regulation, and have been given a suspended points deduction. Pointless (although no literally). It’s like your kid stealing from a local shop, and you say you’ll take away his PlayStation if he does it again. How is that punishment? It’s a deterrent, sure, but it doesn’t punish the crime, so his brother or sister might think, ‘I can steal from the shop once and get away with it’. What do teams who like to operate outside of the rules glean from the Peterborough punishment? We can do it once and get away with it. That’s what.
The same goes for Wigan. They’ve been a mess for years; they got punished, came down, went back up, and are still breaking rules. Yet, the EFL pussyfoot around the problem, exacerbating the issues time and again. It genuinely feels like football learned nothing from the pandemic. Here’s where I praise Bolton – their rogue owner broke rules, they got relegated, and they’re climbing back up, but they’re doing so within their means, spending less on wages than their overall income. That’s how it should be done, not constant boom and bust, and whilst it’s easy to say ‘the fans shouldn’t be punished’ when clubs go wrong, other club’s fans shouldn’t be punished by missing out on promotion (for instance) because a crisis club are inflating the market.
In terms of financial fair play, I won’t get started. The really sad fact is that had Wigan not overspent and won the title, then the third-placed team, MK Dons, would have finished second, The same MK Dons that spend something like £112 on wages for every £100 they earn. How can teams working sustainably hope to compete in a division like that? Football is broken, even in League One, and only proper punishments (and proper financial fair play, which should be an article in itself) will begin to effect serious change.
I don’t expect any of the suggestions here to happen. That wasn’t the point of the article. All I want to prove with this, and the others in the series (if they ever happen), is that we build our entire game on the foundations laid before. We tweak rules, we don’t rewrite them. We add to legislation, we don’t write it from new. By thinking differently, there could be solutions to improve the game that many of us either don’t consider or have completely missed.
If not, at last you’ve killed a bit of time reading this over your morning coffee.