We have all heard it over and over again, haven’t we… it’s too early for a card, the ref doesn’t want to be accused of ruining the game!
I don’t actually think it’s a major problem and I think you’d struggle to compile a list of times in the Premier League this season that a player has escaped some punishment that the same infringement would have earned him later on.
The time issue can in fact be a red herring, as I feel it was with Andre Marriner’s handling of Andy Carroll at the weekend.
Watching the Sunday game as it happened, I did not instinctively feel Marriner had missed one at all, never mind been lenient with West Ham’s tall striker when he clashed with Marvin Zeegelaar after six seconds. I know these things are subjective, but to me it was a coming together of two big lads, no more or less.
It’s tempting to attribute motives to referees, we all do it, and one that springs to mind is the Swiss defender Scharr’s challenge, when he took out Stewart Dallas very early on at Windsor Park in the World Cup play-offs.
Maybe the much-maligned Romanian ref really was ‘letting the game breathe’, but we don’t know for sure, do we?
While I’m all for the ‘context of the game’ argument, I simply don’t think it’s either worth the risk for a manager to tell his players to exploit this old unwritten rule any more, or that a referee will let something go these days that could potentially see him marked down and disciplined himself.
Those days are basically over.
Does that mean I have not seen or heard examples with my own eyes? Of course I have, and I will let you in on two prime ones where I was in the dressing room as the advice was actually given out. Both involved Steven Gerrard and both times Phil ‘Tommo’ Thompson told him in as many words that if he was going to do his opposite number, to make sure he did him early.
They really were both naughty challenges, and he could have been imprisoned for one of them! But the fact is, in such different times, the strategy worked, and both Olivier Dacourt of Leeds, even though he pretended to be unaffected, and one of Crystal Palace’s two Latvians, Andrejs Rubins, who had to be subbed, gave us nothing like the trouble both of them had done in their previous games against us.
Dacourt had really bossed us at Anfield playing for Leeds earlier that season, and Rubins had been a big reason behind Palace pulling ahead of us after the first leg of a League Cup semi-final, having scored at Selhurst Park in January, 2001. So Liverpool moved Stevie to right-back especially.
And there you have it, there is plenty of reason why we jump to the conclusion that a referee is applying a different standard at different stages of big games. There is no doubt it has happened many, many times over the years.
I just think that it’s on its way out, and the obligation that a ref rightly feels to 30-50,000 paying customers and a worldwide audience does not mean they will overlook blatant flouting of the Laws.
There are simply too many cameras now for players themselves not to have got the message and adjusted their own behaviour.