West Ham and Football’s Magic Money Tree

Never-ending revenue growth or heading for a crash? What does the financial future hold for football?

Football finances were back in the news this week; firstly, with a report by a company called Vysyble claiming that football was heading for financial disaster and secondly, a contradictory upbeat article in the Evening Standard trumpeting the fact that London was leading the charge in the game’s unstoppable revenue growth.

The Vysyble report, entitled “We’re So Rich It’s Unbelievable! – The Illusion Of Wealth Within Football” uses a very different methodology to most analysis of football accounts by applying a concept known as economic profit.  Usually when clubs are ranked according to wealth (i.e. those lists which put West Ham as somewhere between the 14th and 17th richest club in the world) the metric used is typically revenues received, the amount of cash coming in through the turnstiles, broadcasting rights and commercial activities.  If profits are ever considered then it is usually based on accounting profit; a simple calculation of revenue less total costs during the appropriate accounting period.  In their last financial accounts West Ham showed revenues of £142 m and an operating profit of £31.5 m, a figure that reduced to a modest pre-tax profit £1.2 m once player trading was taken into account.  With these accounts relating to the period before the London Stadium move and the new TV deal kicked in then expect these numbers to increase significantly next year.

I am no accountant but from what I understand the difference between accounting profit and economic profit is that the latter also factors in costs related to lost opportunity had the capital been invested more wisely elsewhere.  For example, could the owners have enjoyed a better return on their money from investing in stocks and bonds, drug smuggling or on the 2:30 at Ascot?

To see all of Vysyble’s workings out you have to buy their report but from an image posted online it suggests that only five Premier League clubs made an economic profit in 2015/16 compared to the fourteen that were in the black if using accounting profit.  West Ham were ranked midway with a loss of around £5m.

The big questions for me, though, is what does this actually mean and does it make sense to attempt to analyse football in the same way that you would a bank or soft drinks company?  Some big numbers were highlighted from the report to illustrate how much money had been collectively lost by Premier League clubs over the past eight years but with over half of this down to two clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea, where there is no pretence to operate as a profitable business, it somewhat detracts from the overall conclusion.

On the other hand, it is clear that it is the actions of the money-no-object teams like Chelsea and Manchester City that are fuelling player wage inflation and the associated jackpot in agent’s fees.  It doesn’t really make a load of sense for clubs to channel most of its new found riches directly into player’s pockets but to compete with the billionaire playthings it is seen as a necessity.  It is just a shame that the TV windfall has not been used to make the match-day experience more affordable and pleasurable for those attending games.

Ironically, there seems to be no shortage of new investors prepared to get involved in the game; not for any expectation of annual profits but because it is largely an ego trip with the opportunity of an endlessly increasing asset at the end of it.   If football really wanted a level playing field then limiting the impact of the billionaire owner is the area that financial fair play should really have addressed rather than entrenching existing inequalities.  Expect regulation to be introduced the moment that West Ham get a sugar daddy of their own.

Usually, I find accountants, like economists, better at hindsight than insight and although I am not convinced by the Vysyble arguments (or at least what was reported of them) I would agree with another of their conclusions that we will, sooner or later, end up with a European Super League.  But I see this happening not as a result of the Premier League hitting a financial wall but because the worldwide broadcasters want it and the bigger clubs will be unable to resist the even greater rewards that this would bring.  The worldwide TV audience is massive and even though we may think West Ham versus Everton could be a thriller it holds little attraction for the overseas viewer who would happily watch the same few teams play each other week-in and week-out.

It is probably a rather pessimistic view of the future but I do sometimes wonder if the domestic English league would be a far more competitive and exciting spectacle if the mega-rich clubs were off playing their European exhibition games elsewhere.  What was once the icing has now become the cake and despite Leicester’s triumph in 2015/16 the current trajectory is for the gap between the bigger clubs and the rest to get even larger in the future.  There is no way that a club like West Ham will ever grow organically to challenge for regular European football.

Of course none of this doom and gloom is any reason for our owners to keep their hands in their pockets during the next few weeks.

Is There Any Plan To West Ham’s Transfer Window?

Still no light at the end of the London Stadium tunnel as West Ham continue to stumble through the transfer window.

The beauty of the transfer window is that it provides an opportunity to get depressed during the summer as well as during the season.  After the shocking effort of the previous two windows I was convinced that the club would pull out all of the stops to secure the three or four game changing players that have been so enthusiastically spoken about.  This is not to be the case, so it seems, as once again the window follows the familiar pattern of temptation without satisfaction.

It is difficult to know precisely who is to blame (board or manager) for the current shambles and our tendency is to direct contempt according to one’s own prejudices.  Are the board penny pinching, is the manager poor at picking players or is West Ham not an attractive proposition?

The recent Iheanacho situation has taken West Ham’s transfer dealings to a new level of absurdity and, for me, illustrates a collective, disconnected incompetence that is almost too ludicrous to grasp.  In what reality would you pursue a player for six weeks, reportedly agree a deal with the selling club, only for the manager to pull the plug at the eleventh hour.  While it is understandable that a manager might see a deal as eating too much into a finite transfer budget shouldn’t such parameters be agreed to beforehand?  The suggestion that Bilic also felt Iheanacho was not sufficiently proven is implausible for the exact same reasons but it also speaks volumes about his mindset with regard to young players.  That the self-proclaimed Academy should have to send young players to Germany to be properly developed is an amazing contradiction.

For all the talk of next levels and increased capacities it is obvious that West Ham is a club without a realistic plan as far as the playing side is concerned.  The impressive level of season ticket renewals together with a nice growing slice of Premier League pie means that revenues continue to grow and serve, for now, to maintain the club’s slot in the world’s top twenty richest clubs.  To focus solely on revenues, though, without an equal focus on playing staff, coaching, youth development and training facilities is a short sighted strategy in the extreme.  Several more seasons like the last one will surely see supporter numbers evaporate rapidly.  A club whose only boast is a big stadium (and a big screen) does not make it a success.  If nothing else is to change then West Ham will become another Sunderland, not a club with stated ambitions to break into the top six.  Words are very cheap and although it is unfair to suggest that the board have not invested they have not spent money wisely; always looking for a great deal rather than the best value.

The reasons ascribed to Henry Onyekuru for choosing Everton over West Ham were also revealing and it is easy to see why a player would such a decision.  Since Farhad Moshiri took a controlling interest at Everton they have become a far more progressive club that saw a disappointing 11th place finish in 2015/16 as a reason to upgrade their manager and a recruitment policy that has invested sensibly in the future.   In comparison the West Ham’s strategy is to do just enough to survive in the Premier League; no matter what the cocky words coming out of the boardroom might be.  Opportunity has come knocking at the London Stadium in the form of the deal of the century but rather than answer the call everyone appears to be hiding behind the sofa.

Turning to the latest speculation, several new names have appeared as each of the old ones are gradually struck off the list.  Prevalent opinion is that the option of old man Giroud is no longer on the table and that the inflated wage demands of Javier Hernandez are likely to preclude any deal from being completed.  Taking their place on the leader board are a pair of 26 year-olds in Columbian Luis Muriel and Frenchman Gregoire Defrel, although more recent reports has them both destined for greener pastures.  Outside of these the striker cupboard continues to look depressingly bare.

The not unsurprising obsession with strikers has in many ways deflected attention away from other areas of desperate need within the squad.  Where the greatest deficiencies lie depends on what the manager’s preferred style of play will be.  Unfortunately, after two years we are no closer to an answer to this conundrum.  If the plan is to mainly rely on three at the back then the ageing back line looks suspect.  If the preference is to be a back then wide midfield players with defensive attributes are required.  If there is an ideato play two strikers then central midfield reinforcements are badly needed.  Other (non-striker) names in the frame over the last week have included Marko Arnautovic (Stoke), Jota (Brentford) and Badou Ndiaye (Osmanlıspor).  I have to admit that the suggestion of recruiting a player from a team that no-one has ever heard of in the Turkish League makes me shudder.  I still believe that Fabian Delph would be a smart move.

The remaining slow burner is the Joe Hart from Manchester City where the stumbling block is reportedly that West Ham are after a season long loan while City want a permanent deal.   Not sure that Hart is a massive upgrade on Adrian but going for a loan would be the typical short-term West Ham manoeuvre that only confirms belief in the survival only strategy.

Less than five weeks to go to the new season and all we have is one used right back addition to bolster the squad.  The players out may soon be supplemented by the departures of Snodgrass and Feghouli and though I won’t be sorry to see either leave replacing them with new deadwood makes no sense.   Starters are required who can fit into the manager’s tactical master plan not an assortment of bargain squad players.  Recruiting these game changers is going to cost big money in today’s inflated market.

At least we now have one extra day to prepare for the new season with the game at Old Trafford having being put back to Sunday.  What sealed the deal for Lukaku in choosing Manchester United over Chelsea was the guarantee of scoring on his Premier League debut and, from where we are right now, I can only look at the match with trepidation.

On the better news front there are new contracts for Pedro Obiang and (hopefully) Manuel Lanzini which will, at least, ensure higher transfer fees when they leave next summer.

Play Fair 5: Crime and Punishment Under the Hammer

In the final part of the series we go above and beyond the IFAB proposals to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

This is my fifth and final article looking at potential changes to improve the game of football. The first four looked at the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). My initial piece was “Play Fair? – An introduction to the document looking to make changes to game of football”, and I followed this up with their proposals for “Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.” The third article looked at “Increasing playing time”, and the fourth looked at their ideas for “Increasing fairness and attractiveness”. In the previous four I added some of my own views on their proposals, and in this final one I will add some additional thoughts that could be considered by the rule makers but haven’t been.

If you watch any football on TV, how many times do you hear the following question asked every weekend of the football season? “Was he denied a clear goal scoring opportunity?” It is one of those subjective decisions which are based purely on the opinion of the officials, and in particular the referee. And it is one which constantly provokes debate. The West Ham v Manchester City game in January 2016 had two incidents that I will now look at further and try to decide if the punishment fits the crime.

Firstly, take the eighth minute of the game. We were already one up inside the first minute thanks to Valencia, when Aguero burst into our penalty area in a very wide position. Jenkinson clumsily challenged him and referee Craig Pawson didn’t hesitate to point to the spot. From my seat in the stand at that end of the pitch I couldn’t believe it but after seeing the replay on TV later accepted that it was perhaps a foul, and at least a very clumsy challenge. I’ve seen similar challenges penalised sometimes and sometimes not. Based on the statistics of penalty kicks then there was an 85% chance of the penalty becoming a goal. But does the punishment fit the crime? Was Aguero being denied a clear goal scoring opportunity? The answer almost certainly is no. But because the infringement takes place within this arbitrary 18 yard penalty area then a penalty kick is awarded which usually becomes a goal.

Secondly, let us consider an incident after about half an hour of the game. An extraordinary piece of slide tackling and through pass from being on the ground by the once-loved Payet sent Antonio through. His pace was taking him towards goal when Demichelis crudely brought him down and he received a yellow card for his misdemeanour. This meant a free kick to West Ham outside the area allowing City the opportunity to bring their players back and build a wall. Does the punishment fit the crime? Was Antonio denied a clear goal scoring opportunity? Almost certainly yes, although referee Pawson decided that was not the case (to the astonishment of most in the crowd, and many more who saw it later on TV). The rule doesn’t say anything about being a certain goal. A referee shouldn’t think that another player within so many yards means that there was no clear opportunity to score. I don’t think players should necessarily be sent off in these circumstances as I prefer to see 11 playing 11. But the award of a penalty in these circumstances would be enough punishment.

So in the first incident a goal was not really threatened and in the second case it was. But the first incident resulted in a penalty, whereas the second was just a free kick outside the penalty area. The first has a statistical goal likelihood of 85%, whereas the second perhaps about 5% or even less. So is justice being done? No, I believe not.

Older readers will remember a certain Keith Hackett, who in 1991 deemed that Tony Gale was denying Gary Crosby a clear goal scoring opportunity even though he wasn’t really running towards the goal! All West Ham fans of that era hate Mr. Hackett, but many would have liked him in charge in this game when Antonio was brought down!

This brings me nicely to my next question. What is the point of having a penalty area at all (other than determining a specific area where goalkeepers than handle the ball)? Why don’t we have a rule change such that if a foul is committed anywhere on the pitch a free kick is given, but if the referee deems that it denies a clear goal scoring opportunity then he awards a penalty, irrespective of the exact place that the infringement happened? This could happen close to goal, or, as in Antonio’s case, some distance from goal. The award of a penalty kick just because an infringement happened within the penalty area (even if the goal is not really threatened) is nonsense if you think about it. Surely the only consideration should be the denial of a clear opportunity to score a goal?

I’ve got a lot of views about offside and I’ve been reading about the law, FIFA guidance, referee guidance etc. One problem I have is that it has been proven in scientific research that human beings (including linesmen!) physically cannot move their eyes fast enough to take in all the necessary action. To make a correct decision they have to assess the positions of the player passing the ball, the player receiving the ball, and the second from last defender at the exact moment a pass is made, bearing in mind that they could be some distance apart, and possibly moving at speed in opposite directions. Am I the only person who believes that when a slow motion replay of an offside decision is shown on TV, when they draw the line across the pitch it isn’t always simultaneous with the exact moment the ball is played? I believe the offside law needs to be changed.

The rule was introduced many years ago to stop the concept of goal-hanging and this makes sense. But why have the situation where you can be offside in half of the pitch? Can you really be goal-hanging more than fifty yards from goal? Why not change the rule so that you can only be offside in this final 18 yards of the pitch? This would prevent the current condensing of play in the centre of the field and stretch it out further. Assistant referees would only have to consider the issue in a smaller area, and it would surely result in fewer incorrect decisions.

And while we are considering rule changes, what about free kicks? These are meant to be an advantage to the side who get awarded them, and currently the opposition have to retreat 9.15 metres. Why such a small distance? Historical I suppose – ten yards. Why not extend this distance to 15 metres to give a real advantage?

The laws of the game were established over 150 years ago. Since then the average height of human beings has increased by more than 10%, we can run more than 10% faster, and jump more than 10% higher and longer. Perhaps the pitch should now be extended to be 10% longer and 10% wider, and the goals should be 9 feet high and 9 yards across to allow for the increased performance of the human body?

There are very few changes that are ever made to the laws of the game or the interpretation of rules. And the game has moved on considerably from when all the laws were drafted initially by Ebenezer Cobb Morley in 1863. Perhaps the last really significant change was the introduction of the deliberate back pass rule almost 25 years ago. Yes, the offside law is tinkered with from time to time to such an extent that the viewing public and the players themselves get confused by first phase, second phase, interfering or not interfering with play etc.

The game of football is simple and great, but let us not rest on our laurels. In most spheres of life changes are made with the intention of improving something. We can do the same with the beautiful game. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) Play Fair document is a step in the right direction. Historically IFAB have always taken rather a conservative view or attitude towards any proposed changes, and in any event FIFA has 50% of the votes when it comes to considering any amendments. So while FIFA hold such power then I fear nothing much will happen. It will be interesting, however, to see the reaction throughout the world to the proposals made by IFAB which are more radical than we have seen before, and in some instances would bring a definite benefit. But in my opinion they don’t go far enough.

Play Fair 4: Increasing Fairness and Attractiveness

Part 4 of the series takes a look at the IFAB proposals designed to produce a fairer and more attractive game.

This is the fourth of my series of articles looking at the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and looks at their ideas for increasing fairness and attractiveness. My initial piece was “Play Fair? – An introduction to the document looking to make changes to game of football”, and I followed this up with their proposals for “Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.” The third article looked at “Increasing playing time”.

The aim of this final strategy is to make the game fairer and more enjoyable to watch, play, coach and referee. This may involve challenging aspects of football which have been traditionally accepted but which some believe can cause minor irritation and spoil the game. The following are the points raised:

A different order of kickers for penalty kicks in a penalty shoot-out

Statistics show that the team that takes the first kick in a shoot-out has an advantage because of greater mental pressure on the second kicker in each round, who may face instant elimination if they miss their kick, especially once the first four kicks have been taken by each side. They propose a system similar to the tie-break in a game of tennis, whereby one team takes just one kick, and then the second team then take two consecutive penalties. The first team then takes two kicks and so on, each team taking two kicks at a time, until one team wins. By doing this, if each kick is successfully converted, then as you move on to the subsequent penalties after each team has taken their five penalties, the “mental pressure” alternates between the teams, rather than one team always being ahead. This sounds a fairer way of doing things to me, and I believe it should be introduced as soon as possible.

Goal kicks and defending free kicks in the penalty area

Under the current rule the ball must be played outside the area before another player can touch it. If it is played before leaving the area the kick is re-taken, and this could be seen as a time-wasting tactic. I’m not sure I understand the reasoning behind this current rule which does not apply anywhere else on the pitch, where a short kick can be taken. The proposal is to allow defending players or the goalkeeper to play the ball inside the area once the goal / free kick has been taken. But I cannot understand why they propose only defending players to be able to play the ball next. Why not the attacking players as would be the case in any other area of the pitch, as long as they are outside the area when the kick is actually taken? The reasoning behind the proposal is that it can speed up the game, stop time-wasting, and they believe it may lead to a more constructive and controlled re-start rather than the current long kick.

Handball

This is one of the most contentious issues in the game, especially when it occurs in the penalty area. Questions arise as to whether the handball is deliberate, if it is hand to ball or ball to hand, and pundits and referees seem to question whether the arms / hands are in a natural or un-natural position. This requires judgement by the officials which many perceive to be incorrect on many occasions. Clearly the game would benefit from a clearer and more consistent definition and interpretation of handball.

One school of thought is that if it hits the hand or arm (deliberate or not) then an offence is committed, taking the subjective judgement out of the hands of the referee. The alternative view is that the referee must be absolutely certain that it is deliberate to blow his whistle. In the penalty area, too many penalties are awarded in my opinion when the action is not a deliberate one. This usually leads to a goal from the penalty spot, when in many instances the goal was not being threatened by the ball being played by the hand or arm. Clearly this is one issue that requires further debate and clarification and needs to be addressed but this document does not really do so. How about this for a solution? If the ball hits the hand and denies a goal scoring opportunity then a penalty is awarded, otherwise a free-kick. Ignore whether or not the “offence” occurs in the penalty area, and take the intent out of the equation.

They do have some proposals, however, that they believe could make the game fairer. These include sending off a player who deliberately scores a goal with his hand, in the same way that a defender who prevents a goal in this way is punished. Personally I do not like to see players sent off which potentially spoils the game for spectators. Perhaps a more radical solution would be for the team of the attacking player who scores a goal in this way to concede a penalty themselves, even though the offence took place at the other end of the pitch.

A further proposal is that a goalkeeper who handles a deliberate pass or throw-in from a team mate should be penalised by a penalty kick awarded against him rather than an indirect free-kick which is currently the case. I like this idea.

Their final proposal in respect of handball is that the referee should be able to award a goal if a defender stops a goal being scored by handling the ball, an idea which is similar to the penalty try in the game of rugby. Again, I believe a sound proposal.

Half-time and full-time whistle only blown when the ball is out of play

This is another proposal borrowed from the game of rugby and, again I believe to be a good one. Sometimes the referee blows his whistle for half / full time just as a shot is going into the goal, or a team has a promising attack or scoring opportunity. The introduction of this change would eliminate any controversy and potentially create more excitement as a team tries to keep the ball in play.

The penalty kick – hit or miss

Their final proposal in this area aims to stop encroachment by defenders or attackers when a penalty is being taken. They propose that a penalty kick is either scored or missed / saved. If the kick is not successful, then the referee would stop play and award a goal kick, thus discouraging all the nonsense as players crowd the edge of the penalty area when a kick is taken. Once again, a proposal that would seem to be a promising idea.

Play Fair 3: Increasing Playing Time

Part three of the IFAB rule change proposals considers how to increase Playing Time.

This is the third of my articles looking at the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and looks at their ideas for increasing playing time in a game of football. My initial piece was “Play Fair? – An introduction to the document looking to make changes to game of football”, and I followed this up with their proposals for “Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.”

The concept of increasing playing time is one of my hobby horses that I wrote about in my introduction to the Play Fair document, having first written about it in 2015. The document begins this section with the comment that many people are very frustrated that a typical 90 minute game of football has fewer than 60 minutes of effective or actual playing time, i.e. when the ball is in play. Their key strategy which could be implemented without any law changes is a stricter calculation of additional time. They state that referees should be required to be much stricter in calculating additional time, by stopping their watch as follows:

  • From the time a penalty kick is awarded until the kick has been taken
  • From when a goal is scored until the kick- off is taken
  • From the time play stops for an injury until play restarts
  • From the time a card is shown until play restarts
  • From a substitution signal until the game restarts
  • From the award of a free kick until the kick is taken – this is especially important when pacing out is carried out.

You would be amazed how much time this would add on compared to what happens now. If you don’t believe me then use the stopwatch on your watch / smartphone every time one of these situations arises in a game. At the moment we typically find that referees add on 1-2 minutes at the end of the first half, and usually somewhere between 3-5 minutes in the second half. This bears little relation to the actual time when no football is being played.

We all remember when Tony Pulis used to bring his Stoke City side to play at Upton Park, and apart from a number of other dubious time wasting tactics, they would try to force throw-ins in our half. Rory Delap had an excellent long throw, but he would take an interminable amount of time drying the ball, waving players into position etc. It could take up to a minute for each throw-in to be taken and incensed the crowd.

I would go further than the initial suggestions in the Play Fair document for adding on time and propose stopping time whenever the ball goes out of play, especially when kicked into the stands, or when the ball goes behind the goal. I believe that the clock should only be restarted at the point a corner, or goal kick, or throw-in is actually taken.

In their points for discussion the document brings up the subject of stadium clocks, and they want to link this to the referees watch. Again, I would suggest going further and take timekeeping totally out of the hands of the referee when there is a clock in the stadium. The officials have enough to think about without worrying about timekeeping. How simple would it be for a clock controller in the stand to stop and start the clock as necessary and only have the clock running when the ball is in actual play? To me this is so easy that I cannot comprehend why it doesn’t get introduced at once. It would totally eliminate the concept of timewasting. It would be necessary to consider how long each half should last, and suggest 30 minutes in each half of actual playing time. You could even have 4 periods of 15 minutes actual playing time, with a 15 minute interval at the end of the second period. This would lead to more playing time than we see at the moment, and time wasting would become a redundant exercise with no benefit.

They do make some other suggestions for increasing playing time, but to me they would have minimal impact, especially if the actual playing time guided by the stadium clock is introduced. These suggestions include, referees to apply the 6 seconds rule for goalkeepers strictly, self-passing at a free kick, corner kick or goal kick, allowing a moving ball at a goal kick, insisting a goal kick is taken at the side where the ball goes out, and substitutions taking place, or players leaving the field when injured at the nearest touchline. All of these would speed up the game to some extent, but the key one regarding the stadium clock is the most important to my mind.

The reasoning behind the “self-passing” proposal is a sound one in the case of free kicks, as it would allow the fouled player to effectively play the ball to himself. The game already allows quick free kicks, but would it be even better, and perhaps encourage speedier attacking play, if the player who has been fouled could (if he wanted to) stop the ball and then immediately continue their dribble or attacking move, thus speeding up the game? Perhaps this could be trialled?

I’m uncertain as to how West Ham would benefit from this change unless we took a different approach to free kicks. On many occasions we already take them very quickly, but without a great deal of thought. How many times last season did we have a free kick in the opponent’s half, only for us to take it straight away, frequently sideways and backwards, with the ball ending up with our keeper? The advantage of having a free kick is lost when we do this.

Play Fair Part 2: Player Behaviour and Respect

In Part 2 of the series the IFAB Play Fair Document proposals to ‘Improving player behaviour and increasing respect.’

In my previous article I introduced the Play Fair document being proposed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Today I will look at the first of the three crucial areas where they believe potential changes could be made to improve the game, that of improving player behaviour and increasing respect.

Over the years there have been many attempts to try to get players to improve their behaviour. Of course the main sanction is the issue of yellow and red cards, but how much effect does this have? In many instances the correct issue of both types of card is a subjective one and provokes much controversy.

Some of the ways in which IFAB believe that behaviour of players and team officials can be improved make some sense, whilst I don’t believe that others will have any real impact at all. The changes that could be implemented immediately without a change in the Law are fairly obvious ones but have no real clout:

  1. The captain must become the main point of communication with the referee.
  2. The captain must be the only player allowed to approach the referee when there is controversy.
  3. The captain must help the referee to calm flashpoint situations.

These are all sensible enough, but can you see it realistically happening unless there are meaningful sanctions in place when they don’t?  Some captains in recent years, and we all know who they are, would be less equipped to help the referee to calm down their players in flashpoint situations.

We all know what happens in reality. Players don’t like a decision, either because the officials have got it wrong, or because they feel that if they make a significant protest when they are in the wrong the referee will be sufficiently intimidated not to give decisions against the team in the future. Some teams in recent years have turned mobbing the referee into an art form, and unfortunately with weak referees it works. Is it a coincidence that teams noted for this type of protest appear to have more than their fair share of contentious decisions go in their favour?

The mobbing or surrounding of match officials is a problem that has existed for as long as I can remember but has, perhaps, escalated in recent times. For me the reason is clear. The officials do nothing about it. How many times do you see players around the referee or one of his assistants, and the referee keeps trying to wave them away? Do they go away? No. And what are the sanctions? None.

IFAB believe that the following sanctions could be tested out to solve the problem.

  1. “Referees should deal more strongly with players who mob the referee or linesman by the use of yellow cards.” Personally, I thought that they already had this power but are too weak to use it in the majority of cases. And an increase in yellow cards would lead to an increase in red cards, which then leads to more games without the full complement of players on the pitch. I hate to see this. I don’t understand the cheering when a player gets sent off. It leads to a changed, and usually, duller game, where the team with fewer players brings everyone back behind the ball, thus ruining the entertainment.
  2. “Only the captain can approach the referee to discuss a controversial decision.” They call this a sanction! It is not and will be totally ignored without anything meaningful happening.
  3. “Fines or points deduction for a team guilty of mobbing.” Now they are beginning to get somewhere, although fines are a total waste of time with the money around at the top level of the game. The only meaningful sanction that I can see working is that of points deduction. We now have panels that review all kinds of incidents retrospectively, and if a team surrounds the referee in a game then, in my opinion, something like two points (perhaps even three) should be deducted from their total if found guilty of this offence. This may seem harsh, but if they seriously want to put an end to it then this is what they must do. Managers will soon drum it into their players that the consequences of this kind of action would be harmful to the team and I’m sure it would soon cease.

I have an alternative suggestion, too. In addition to the potential retrospective action of points deductions, a penalty would be awarded against the team who are mobbing. And if they continue with their protests then the penalty is taken without a goalkeeper allowed in the goal. And if the protests continue a second penalty is awarded and so on until the protests stop. Clubs will soon understand the consequences of surrounding a referee and this type of protest will be consigned to history. Unless there are meaningful sanctions then nothing will change.

IFABs other suggestions for improving player behaviour and increasing respect will, I believe have little impact. They want to test red and yellow cards for coaches and team officials, and discuss a pre-match handshake between the referee and two coaches in the technical area, and a plan to reduce the number of substitutes a team can use if a substitute is sent off. The last one baffles me. What is the point of that? There are so many things they could look at I think this is just tinkering at the edges. Perhaps the game can learn something from rugby where officials are respected, and players tend to refer to the referee as “sir”? Can you see this happening in football? Unless the sanctions for mobbing that I refer to are strong enough then I feel that all of their proposals in part 1 of the Play Fair document will have little impact upon improving player behaviour and increasing respect.

Play Fair: Taking A Hammer To The Rules of The Game

An introduction to the document produced by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) looking to make changes to game of football.

There are conflicting schools of thought when it comes to attempting to improve the game of football. One side of the argument suggests that the game is fine as it is. Many believe that it is already the best and most popular game in the world and should be left alone. An alternative view is that you cannot stand still and it is prudent to make changes from time to time when there is an opportunity to make improvements for players and spectators alike.

I come down on the side of the latter view, and believe it is necessary to make alterations to the Laws to move with changes in the way that the game is played. If you look back to the late 1950s at video footage of games played at that time, you will realise that it has changed since then, and some amendments are necessary to keep the game up to date. As a regular columnist on the best West Ham fanzine ever, Over Land and Sea, as a co-author of this blog, and in my book Goodbye Upton Park, Hello Stratford, I have frequently suggested changes that I believed would improve the game.

Within the book I made regular calls for the introduction of video technology, and devoted more than one chapter to this as it is something I am very much in favour of, as long as it is introduced in the right way and doesn’t alter the flow of the game. I am pleased to say that this is something that is now well on the way to becoming part and parcel of the professional game at the top level. In my prelude to our game against Stoke City in April 2015 I explained how I believed it should work, and future chapters on the topic reinforced my reasoning, especially resulting from some of the poor refereeing decisions that went against us in the 2015-16 season.

We had a batch of games in the second half of the season; away at Manchester United in the cup, away at Chelsea and Leicester in the league, and at home to Palace and Arsenal, all five of which resulted in draws. With a video assistant referee, all five would probably have resulted in victories, which would have seen progression into the semi-final of the cup, and eight more points in the league, which would have given us a Champions League place. Some will argue that these incorrect decisions balance themselves out over a season, but in reality they do not. I cannot recall a single instance where we benefitted from a contentious decision that later proved to be wrong in that season.

In my book I also unleashed another big bugbear of mine, the question of timekeeping, and timewasting. In a later article for Over Land and Sea, and also within the book after the home game had been played against West Brom on 29 November 2015, I went to town on this topic, and also re-watched the whole game on Sky with a stopwatch, and bemoaned the fact that less than 25 minutes of football was actually played in the second half of the game.

On 23 January 2016, after the game against Manchester City on that date, I wrote a chapter entitled Crime and Punishment. In this I pushed for changes in respect of the awarding of penalty kicks, questioned the need for having a penalty area, introduced my reservations about the offside law, questioned the concept of deliberate handball, and even made suggestions about increasing pitch sizes and goals by around 10% to allow for increases in sizes and performance of the human body since the original sizes were brought in 150 years ago.

The Laws of the game haven’t changed drastically in my lifetime (I’ve been following since 1958) but there have been some developments and amendments to the laws, and changes to rules of competitions. Some will say they have been beneficial, others will say that tinkering sometimes confuses the issue. So, for example, one of the most controversial laws in the game is the offside rule. This provokes a lot of debate, and was introduced initially to prevent “goal-hanging”. But quite how a player could be accused of “goal-hanging” when just inside his opponent’s half is beyond me. One change I would like to see is that a player can only be offside in the final eighteen yards of the pitch, but I reckon that change is a long way off. But it shouldn’t be.

The offside rule used to include “interfering with play” and there are a number of famous quotes surrounding this along the lines of “if he’s not interfering with play, or seeking to gain an advantage, then what is he doing on the pitch?” I haven’t quoted it exactly I’m sure, as there are contradicting views as to who first said it, but many attribute it to Bill Shankly. Nowadays they talk about first phase, second phase, active play etc. Anybody with any doubt as to the complexity of this rule should look up Law 11 in the Laws of the Game. It is a minefield, and almost impossible to explain.

Other changes in the last fifty years or so include the introduction of substitutes (many younger people will not remember a time when substitutes were not part of the game), the back pass rule, goalkeepers now being allowed to run with the ball without bouncing it (look up some old footage of the game to see this), the six second rule for keepers (but how often is this broken without being penalised?), three points for a win (it used to be two), and penalty shoot-outs. I am old enough to remember European ties ending all square and progression to the next round of the competition being decided by the toss of a coin. Many will believe that these changes have benefitted the game, although of course there are always detractors.

Recent innovations which are gaining momentum but still give rise to controversy in their initial trial stages include experimentation with video assistant referees, and changes to the sanctions for denial of obvious goalscoring opportunities. Now the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the independent guardians of the rules of the game, have issued a discussion document entitled “Play Fair”. I was looking forward to reading their proposals. The main aims are to develop the Laws to promote integrity and fairness, improve accessibility, and use technology to benefit the game. The three-pronged strategy within the document is a kind of five-year-plan to improve player behaviour and increase respect, increase playing time, and increase fairness and attractiveness. For each of these three areas they have three sub-divisions: “no law change needed – could be implemented immediately”, “ready for testing / experiments”, and “for discussion”

I will look at each part of the strategy in turn and consider its merits, and spread my writing over five articles on consecutive days, starting with this one. Many are sound ideas, (and even include areas that I have previously touched upon) that would improve the game in my opinion, but are they tackling all of the real issues that give rise to controversy? They don’t have any proposals for changes to the offside rule, the awarding of penalty kicks when the goal is not really being threatened, and they don’t really tackle the handball situation. Nevertheless some of their ideas are sound ones and I will describe them in some detail in following articles.