Red and Yellow cards

DAVID DEIN got it half right. Arsenal's vice-chairman and effective chief executive made light of Arsenal's appalling disciplinary record this season, emphasising that of the dozen dismissals, no fewer than 11 had been for incurring a second yellow card. This followed hard on the heels of that 12th dismissal, the expulsion in Leverkusen in a European Cup game of Ray Parlour for a somewhat contentious second "yellow card" foul. Almost simultaneously however the Arsenal Chairman Peter Hill Wood, scion of a line of Arsenal chairmen reaching back into the 1920s, was deploring that forbidding record.

It should also be said that the referee could well have given Parlour a previous second yellow for a foul. It was in fact no less than his third expulsion of the season, while it is hard to forget the shocking, flying kick he took at a Lens opponent at Wembley in another European match which ended, too, in his expulsion.

But when it comes to red and yellow cards, and taking a step back from Arsenal's dismal record and the seeming inability of their suave French manager Arsene Wenger to seal with it, David Dein has suggested the fundamental weakness and anomaly of the card system.

I myself have always been opposed to it ever since covering the Final of the Olympic tournament in Mexico City in 1968 between Hungary and Bulgaria in the Azteca stadium. That, I believe, was the first ever occasion on which the cards were used and in my view ruined the game. You could hardly blame the Italo-Mexican referee Diego di Leo though I was no great admirer of his officiating that day. But it was clear to me from the first that the cards, so to speak, had a life of their own. That they inevitably dictated a referee's decisions, cut away his independence.

They were, I believe, invented by the late Ken Aston, the tall Essex schoolmaster referee who never looked back after totally losing control of that horribly violent Italy v Chile game in Santiago in the 1962 World Cup. Ken died some months ago but this was part of his legacy. And I wish I could say after all these years that it is a benign one.

But it isn't. Chiefly because logic tends to go out of the window. Inexorably, two yellow cards mean an automatic red. But why should they? I was somewhat amused of late when a famous but abrasive Glasgow Rangers centre-half Willie Woodburn died, having long ago been suspended sine die, though later amnestied, after a series of hard, harsh fouls. It was pointed out that during his career he had been sent off only a few times, while many a player today is often expelled. But that was well before the days of the red and yellow cards. If you were expelled it could be only because you had committed a serious foul.

But two yellow cards could each well be for a couple of essentially minor if not trivial offences. Such was surely the case of the Manchester United and Ireland left back Dennis Irwin, who found himself red carded by the English referee David Elleray because, having received one yellow card, he incurred a second simply for running a ball back across the touchline when he may not even have known it had passed out of play. This had devastating results for poor Irwin who was suspended and thus missed the 1999 European Cup Final versus Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

Elleray stuck to his gun and insisted that he had no alternative but to book Irwin a second time. Well, that was debatable. He might have used his discretion and simply given Irwin a lecture. But discretion over all is exactly what the cards system has robbed the referees of. And with various diktats coming from the rule-making International Board, confusion is endless.

Take above all the tackle from behind. Is it or is it not banned? Should it always be penalised; essentially with a red card as we seemed to be told by the ever-controversial FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, in the 1998 World Cup in France? Four years earlier, in the USA version, there was endless confusion, before hostilities began, when the equally-baffling then FIFA President Joao Havelange declared that any tackle from behind was a red card offence, only to be forced into a humiliating retreat. Indeed, in that whole ensuing tournament, only one player, a Russian, was sent off after a tackle from behind and that was only because it constituted his second yellow card.

In fact, there is every reason to punish a foul tackle from behind with the ultimate sanction. But if with such a tackle the player takes the ball this is surely quite legitimate and to impose anything else would be to deprived defenders of an essential weapon in their armoury.

Some years ago a somewhat eccentric English referee called Gordon Hill came forward with a potentially interesting compromise. Exercised then, as some of us still are, by the anomaly implicit in the cards system he suggested something which he called a Super Caution; one which would carry extra disciplinary points but would not commit a referee to send a player off. Needless to say the idea fell upon and we are still alas stuck with the cards system as originally devised. So it is that far too many players, surely, are sent off.

My mind goes back to the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Naples between Italy and Argentina. Claudio Caniggia, who'd headed the vital Argentine goal, was yellow carded for the utterly trivial offence of raising his hand to a high ball, which, it transpired, he hadn't event touched. But he'd thus incurred enough yellow cards to rule him out of the ensuing World Cup Final!