Moira Gordon: Football's rules must be applied consistently

A new season but the same old gripes. Peter Houston has already signed up for referee watch. The new league campaign hasn't even kicked off and already the Falkirk manager is miffed. He claims he will be closely monitoring the decisions referees make with regards to tugging shirts and holding opponents in the box. Maybe we all should.

Referee Bobby Madden took a dim view of wrestling, but will all referees apply the laws consistently? Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Referee Bobby Madden took a dim view of wrestling, but will all referees apply the laws consistently? Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Falkirk conceded three penalties in one game this week, two of them in that category. By the letter of the law, referee Bobby Madden was possibly correct but Houston’s frustration is understandable. As he says, that nonsense goes on in every game but how many penalties are awarded? Not enough to eradicate the problem and certainly not enough to justify two in one game. Not unless it is part of the new directives and not unless it is going to be consistently applied in every game, by every referee, every week. That, he says, would be fine by him, but he doubts that. So do I.

This year, much has been made of the latest revamp of the football rule book, which has been carried out over the past 18 months and was ratified and implemented in time for this summer’s European Championships. The fact is some people will notice changes and others, who only had a fleeting familiarity with the rules anyway, will carry on bawling and shouting about things that have lapsed or never applied to begin with.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

But one thing players, managers and fans recognise is inconsistency and it makes their blood boil. Often it is explained away as simply a different interpretation of the laws but even the people who were responsible for formulating the revised tome are fed up with that excuse.

According to those involved in the process, the aim was to “uncomplicate” matters and encourage a more commonsense approach. OK, I can hear some guffawing at the back, those who feel that is an alien concept to the people who boss the game, but they have made more than 95 alterations, they chopped 10,000 words from the meaty 22,000-word Laws of the Game document and they say that the hope is that fewer incidents will now be left open to interpretation.

Houston said he wasn’t aware of any new directives relating to the farcical all-in-wrestling that occurs in the box at set pieces these days, but if there is then he and the rest of the Central Belt-based managers won’t know about then until 8 August when they are scheduled to meet referees to discuss matters.

Hardly the best timing. That will be at least two days after the leagues start back, a fortnight after his players were sent packing and more than a week after the League Cup group matches were concluded! And the officials wonder why people get frustrated.

Heralded changes include not having to play the ball forward from kick-off and players no longer having to leave the field for treatment if they have been injured in a clash that saw an opponent shown either a yellow or red card. Some incidents will now lead to a free-kick or a penalty rather than a drop ball, while players who leave the field of play to swap a blood-stained shirt or change boots no longer have to wait for play to halt before returning to the action.

It is all supposed to make things fairer, which is great. But while fair is to be celebrated, consistent would be even better and would help mend the tarnished relationships between po-faced, finger-wagging officialdom and the people who play, coach and watch the game and who have little of any positivity to say about the men and women in black. Part of that is pure pantomime, the referee giving irate fans an easy scapegoat, or teams a convenient smokescreen, and some of it is a lazy ignorance of the laws but that is not all it is.

People would like referees to explain their decisions – Houston said there was no point in even trying to seek an audience – but most of all players, managers and fans want to see the same rules applied regardless of the team, the occasion, or area of the pitch and they want to see them applied by all officials every week, not just at the start of the season or the start of a tournament, when they are trying to make a statement.

So if referees have declared war on the shirt-pulling and the jostling, great. As someone who gets more than a tad annoyed at players who no longer even make a pretence of watching the ball coming in, no longer bother with sneakiness and are arrogantly and recklessly blatant in their determination to bear hug their opposite number into submission, I salute them but, please, make sure the message is universal.

While they are at it. Wage war on the diving, implement the ruling that allows them to get tougher on moaners and wannabe refs who surround them and throw temper tantrums and, for goodness sake, please stop defenders from “seeing the ball out” from about 20 yards out. It is getting silly and that kind of obstruction would be punished in the middle of the park, why not at the byeline? It is all about consistency.

Yes, the card count would be astronomical in the first few weeks and Houston’s men wouldn’t be the only ones conceding multiple penalties but the smart ones would get the message pretty sharpish and common sense would prevail. And if referees were consistent then no one could complain.

Then, once we tackle all those issues, we just need to get the officials to show some common sense when it comes to celebrations.

If momentum carries a player off the field of play, so be it. Let them have their moment, don’t be a killjoy. And I’m still at a loss to understand why a player whipping off his shirt is reason for admonition or why he is castigated and held responsible for the behaviour of morons, who have been dishing it out but can’t take it back, if he puts his finger to his lip. Banish them, not the banter and the emotion

The game is there to entertain, it is passionate and it should be fun. The players have a part to play in that, so too do the fans, but referees have a massive role. Houston says he will be watching them and he won’t be the only one.

The new season is back and hopefully the new directives extol consistency and include letting the football take centre stage. That would be a real common sense approach.