The boy done good

There are few things in professional football that bring me as much joy as watching the progression of young players.

They arrive into the team, these proto-footballers, with energy and verve which lasts for exactly one clattering tackle. A tackle that welcomes them to the harsh realities of the game.

From then on the live a life of constant testing. Most young players were by some way the best at football in the majority of games they played up. The late Dean Richards is talked of in glowing terms by the lads who played alongside him with Rhodesway because in a season in which they lost but a single game, he was the best player.

Progress in youth football is about that. The best move on to the next level which they are the best at, the others are moved on. The chances are that the vast majority of players who every get a pro contract were the best in their school by some distance, the best at other Junior levels too as they make the cut every step of the way.

And then comes first team professional football.

No longer the best, no longer protected by the confidence of being the best, before that first crunch of a tackle has stopped throbbing the player has gone from peerless performer to bottom of the pile.

Which is when things get really interesting.

How does one get up from that clattering, or the next, or from screwing a ball wide, or from hitting one top corner and being expected to do it again. Character, not the notion of talent, becomes the definition of the footballer.

Darren Stephenson’s debut on Saturday was not the stuff of dreams. His main contribution – bothering the keeper – has to be excluded as not being significant enough to be a foul leaving the much vaunted striker with little to recall on his first game but watching another young player Tom Bradshaw of Shrewsbury Town claiming two goals. One run down the wing while City were a goal up saw Stephenson win a throw in rather than try beat his man – a good move from the point of view of playing the percentages – but with City on the break perhaps the idea that he might have gone at his man will have played on his mind.

Perhaps done more. Perhaps there have been nights when he has wondered what would have happened had he moved to the left of Ian Sharps when Sharps slipped, got closer to Shane Cansdell-Sherriff when he missed his headed clearance. Such thoughts could drive a man mad.

Which is where the character of Stephenson comes to test. What can he learn from his first experience of League football and how can it improve him as a player? How can he think about what he could have done better without obsessing on things he had done wrong.

Every player goes through the same process. The successful ones are able to master this process of learning from mistakes, but not dwelling on them, while the less successful lose confidence on the one hand or never learn on the other.

Over the last few days Darren Stephenson will have had these thoughts on his mind, his response will go a way to telling us what sort of a player he will be. As it is the boy done good to get this far, how he reacts to successes and failures like last Saturday will define how he does from now on.

I honestly do not know what Refereeing is for anymore

Tranmere Rovers left Valley Parade about as angry with the Referee as they could be.

Having come over from the Wirral on a wet Yorkshire Sunday afternoon they left stung with the feeling that the man in the middle had robbed them of a penalty, given a goal which did not go over the line and then allowed a soft penalty against them which led to them going out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle. As the Referee went down the tunnel at VP the boos that surrounded him could have left him in no doubt as to what the visitors thought of his display.

Meanwhile – at the other end of Valley Parade – Lewis Emanuel wandered from the field in a tattered shirt. Tranmere Rovers defender Paul Linwood in what is euphemistically called a “confrontation” had ripped Emanuel’s shirt. Emanuel might have been nursing bruises on his legs sustained from Linwood’s kicks at the ball that Mani shielded at the corner flag – notoriously the lest pleasant of the in-game time wasting tactics and the short straw for any player. Sure enough as Emanuel shielded he defended the ball from two kicks before Linwood stopped aiming for the round white thing and started to kick Lewis. Two swipes connected before Lewis turned round and the square up began. Another firm kick from Linwood as he ripped Emanuel’s shirt and Emanuel took a firm grip of the Tranmere player. The referee booked both.

I honestly do not know what Refereeing is for anymore.

When I was younger I had a sense that Referees – like Policemen – were there to punish those who do bad things and in a way both still do. Much of what the Referee does centres around his cards although I have long since stopped trying to read anything into those decisions. Linwood is given the same punishment as Emanuel when one is playing the game – albeit in a way we might not like – and the other is annoyed by his play enough to start kicking assaults. They both get the same punishment as Dean Windass gets for talking out of turn and a lesser punishment than Windass does when he effs and jeffs.

If you can find logic for that then you are deluding yourself that one exists. It is simply wrong.

However Windass swearing and Linwood’s shirt ripping assaulting do fall within the remit of offences occurring outside the flow of the game. Both are technically speaking criminal offences – although the laws on vulgarities would have to be stretched to cover a footballer – and have no effect on the course of the game unlike a handball or a trip and while they are to be discouraged football’s authorities make a big leap trying to enforce laws of the game over law’s of society and has at times failed. Duncan Ferguson’s red card and additional suspensions during a Dundee United game a number of years ago was dished out by the Scottish Football Association who assumed that the violence would be kept in football circles but the Sheriff saw differently and Big Dunc was sent to prison for assault.

Any punishment football had in place fell a long way short of a few months in clink.

Away from out of the flow of game offences football has a series of rules regarding offences which do interrupt the flow of play which are designed or once were designed to keep that flow going. Back in 1980 Willie Young broken West Ham hearts by pulling down the then 17 Paul Allen on his way to goal in the FA Cup final and his booking for what would now be called a “last man foul” was scant punishment.

At some point after that the idea of sending off players for a professional foul was suggested not as a punishment for the likes of Young but as a deterrent. The idea was that the red card would be so costly a punishment and such a handicap on the team that a player would instead of diving in to foul as “the last man” he would allow the striker to continue to the goal scoring opportunity unfouled creating a more flowing and more entertaining game.

We saw the outcome of this rule yesterday when Dean Windass latched onto a through ball by Owen Morrison and got into a goal scoring position in the penalty area only to be fouled by Ian Sharps of Tranmere. The Referee gave a penalty but Sharpes was not sent off regardless of the fact that the rules say he should have been because to do so would be too harsh a punishment.

One does not want to assume what went on in the Referee’s mind but the idea that the punishment was too harsh – losing a man for the last half hour and probably a goal down – most likely occurred to him and he decided to counter balance the decision he has made to give the penalty by failing to apply the rules as they are laid out. What is supposed to be a deterrent to prevent Sharps from making the tackle and allow the striker to shoot – which is supposed to be the exciting part of football – becomes a subjective punishment.

The next time a player is in the position Sharps found himself in he will no doubt make the same decision to foul to just because the punishment is not given out consistently and thus may be avoided but because it has become so commonplace. In the day when a team can expect players sent off for swearing a red card for a defender has become an almost meritous thing. Managers talk about “silly” cards with those gained in the act of breaking up the flow of football for the opposition and for supporters as being the proper yellows and reds.

Red cards, yellow cards: All the cost of doing business these days.

Before the Windass penalty Tranmere had a shout for a penalty themselves. The far end of Valley Parade does not afford the quality of view to say if this case has merit but far too often balls bouncing to hit hands as opposed to hand being put in the way (deliberately or inadvertently) are being begged for as handball offences. Football should punish those who stick out an arm to stop the ball and those who leave arms laying away from bodies which block the ball but occasions where the ball inadvertently hits an arm only blocking it’s path to the players body are not something we should consider worth the same punishment as a trip which breaks up play.

On top of all this we have a Referee and a linesman who see the ball bounce down from the crossbar and maybe go into the goal but maybe not and give what seemed like a best and even handed decision. It could have been wrong but if it was it was done as a judgement call and not as the product of confusing and neutered rules.

One can forgive Referee mistakes in matters of empirical judgement. The second guessing and uneven application of clear rules on the other hand has created a system where any deterrent factor of discipline in football is lost and results in players fighting because as Paul Linwood kicked out Lewis Emanuel seemed to sense that no one else was doing anything to prevent the opposition player from taking chunks out of his legs.

I do not know what Referees, card, discipline et al are supposed to be doing anymore. Every week Referees are booed and teams are unhappy but as representatives and poor executives of such a deeply broken system one cannot say they do not deserve such criticism.

Football discipline is broken from top to bottom and very few elements of it work as they should. The game continues despite it and an industry has been established about moaning about it but when as we see now both teams regularly leave games complaining about the men in the middle it becomes clear that the game carries on in spite of and not because of their officiating.

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