Perhaps it’s an age thing. Perhaps it’s just me. I was watching BBC One’s Match of the Day programme on Saturday evening. Much was made of Manchester City’s Wayne Bridge’s refusal to shake his former Chelsea team mate John Terry's hand just before kick off. However, I understand he did send him a text after the game - which City won 4-2 - which read 'Now that's how to play away from home...
However, the incident that had me shaking my head wasn’t at Stamford Bridge. It came during the Stoke City-Arsenal game when the home team’s Ryan Shawcross made a tackle on the visiting team’s Aaron Ramsey. The Stoke man was late on the young Welshman to the extent Ramsey suffered a broken leg. Shawcross’s challenge was mis-timed and clumsy but it wasn’t malicious. Nevertheless the reaction from the Arsenal players was of collective fury - how dare the Stoke player make such a challenge on such a talented young player? Didn’t they know they were playing against The Arsenal? Born again Gooner Sol Campbell led the indignation and almost pleaded with the referee to send Shawcross off. Not that the referee needed any persuasion - he showed the Stoke player a red card.
The BBC, ultra cautious these days for fear of causing offence, didn’t show a replay of the incident until the highlights of the game were over and host Gary Lineker was able to warn ‘those of a squeamish nature’ to look away as messrs Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer analysed the tackle. The camera then scanned to a waiting ambulance as a distraught Ramsey was stretchered off and straight on to the emergency vehicle for immediate transportation to hospital. The consensus of feeling was that ‘all our thoughts are with young Aaron Ramsey’.
Now I may be accused of looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. But in years gone by such an incident would be barely worthy of a mention, especially north of the border where such challenges were made on a weekly basis. I have mentioned before on these pages about Hearts legend Drew Busby who was fully committed in every challenge he made three decades ago. Indeed, there is an iconic image of the aforementioned Alan Hansen in the days when he played for Partick Thistle, cowering from a Busby shot at Tynecastle. Dreadful defending as Hansen himself might say, but no one got in the way of a Drew Busby pile driver! In the 1960s and 70s almost every team had at least one player who thrived on the ‘meaty challenge’. It was a more physical game in those days but the fans who stood on the terraces appreciated the more physical side of the game and expected their players not only to contest fifty-fifty balls but to win them.
On the same day as the Shawcross incident at Stoke, Hearts had taken three points at Pittodrie on a pitch more suitable for donkey riding than professional football. Larry Kingston went for a fifty-fifty ball with Aberdeen's Fraser Fyvie. Both had their feet high and there was an inevitable collision. Referee Willie Collum showed Kingston a red card when a yellow would have been more appropriate. Kingston’s challenge would have been the norm a few years ago but was now worthy of a straight red card.
I have a fair degree of sympathy for referees (honest!) FIFA bring in so many changes - for example does anyone totally understand the offside rule nowadays? - and there are phrases used such as 'active' and 'inactive' meaning there is far more probability of refs getting things wrong than was the case in years gone by. A couple of others things that have changed since the 'good old days' of Tom Tiny Wharton and his ilk. Firstly, players are now far more likely to try and con the referee to gain an advantage. Behaviour such as diving, faking injury and over reacting to challenges are commonplace no matter where you go. The waving of an imaginary card from some players really irritates me. Sadly this is a sad reflection on society in general and youngsters watch players feigning injury etc. and think it's acceptable.
Secondly, the pace of the game now is far quicker than in days gone by. Referees can get decisions wrong simply because they're not up with play - and not many assistant referees dare to suggest the man in charge has got it wrong (although it has happened on occasion as Hearts fans can testify!) I think everyone in football has a duty to improve the game - including refereeing standards. Full-time referees, more honesty from players and a simplication of the rules would help.
But don’t hold your breath…