Monday, 13 February 2017

Seven yellow cards - must be a 'friendly'

Games 30-32, 2016-17

Three friendlies in four days to warm us up for the second half of the season. The first two games pass as you would hope - with very little bother, and just one card in 180 minutes. I'm grateful for this, as it helps me get back into the rhythm of refereeing. For the opening 20 minutes of my first game for two months, my mind was wandering until I could wrestle hold of my concentration.

On Saturday evening, I was mentally composing a column along the following lines: friendlies are the ideal in terms of player behaviour, but only the incentive of an arbitrary number of points for winning injects the game with enough needle to make football worth playing and watching over the long term. Not a massively profound theory, it's true, but I was hoping to raise a sporting-philosophical conundrum. Is it better to play in harmony and safety for the joy of the game and the exercise? Or is it better to play for points in a perpetually competitive atmosphere with the ever-present possibility that things will turn sour and maybe violent?

My error: 32 minutes was too late for the first caution
On Sunday, this poser was blown out the water by the third 'friendly', between two young, fit teams from levels 7 and 8 of the national tier, both of them doing well in their respective divisions. Ironically, one of the team's names translates as 'Friends of Sport'. Previous visits to this club have included a father throwing the key to the referee's changing room at me at the end of the game because I hadn't awarded his son's team a corner kick ten minutes earlier (they'd just lost to a last-minute goal), and a youth team coach who spent the entire game barking at his players and loudly contesting every last decision made against his team. Their crowd always has an opinion, at high volume.

Neither the 'Friends of Sport' nor their opponents are in the mood for brotherhood. In short, it's an ugly game marked by multiple fouls that are initially niggly, mutate to pre-meditated, and eventually
become borderline dangerous. Because it's a friendly I'm lenient on showing cards at the start, and by the end even a total of seven yellows is still way too generous on my part. I regret not having clamped down sooner - my mistake: poor game management.

The other main characteristic of the game is the moaning, which at this level seems to be institutionalised. The worst, but by no means only, offender is the short-legged number 4 on the away team. He's much older than all the other players, and makes up for his diminishing speed and skills by whining all game long. When the Friends of Sport score a perfectly good goal, he is the only player from his side to scream that it was offside and demands to know why I didn't blow the whistle.

Lambchop - missionaries of mellow
What to do? Yet another yellow card? There comes a point where it's as effective as ordering sugar-crazed toddlers at a wild kids' party to go and stand in the corner for five minutes. I say to him, "I didn't blow my whistle, because it wasn't offside. The reason it wasn't offside is because I didn't blow my whistle." While he tries to wrap his angry little brain around my circular logic, I blow for the re-start.

There's a space in the match report for 'Notable incidents'. Usually I leave it blank, though occasionally I'll comment on a particularly unsporting coach or team. After this game I really wanted to write the following:

"Today we experienced 90 minutes of sporting joy. Both teams positively radiated a universal goodwill and a generous spirit throughout the match. Each decision of the referee was greeted with a hearty, 'Well judged, sir, that was a jolly difficult decision to get right' and, 'Mr. Referee, while I may not agree with your last call against my team, I respect your right to express yourself using a whistle'. Not that there were many fouls to call aside from the odd unfortunate collision that immediately prompted an avalanche of gentlemanly apologies and warm handshakes. The seven yellow cards I showed were merely to break up the monotony of the unstinting fellowship. These two teams are shining beacons of excellent conduct, and I salute their impeccable human qualities in these times of political uncertainty."

I didn't have the time, though, as we had tickets to see Lambchop and had to run for the train. Two hours of beautiful, mellow music to counter an afternoon of witless snivelling and vindictive ankle-tapping. I wish that I could have taken all these Friends of Sport along to wind down too.

Final scores: Thursday - 9-1 (no yellow cards)
Saturday - 6-1 (one yellow card)
Sunday - 3-2 (seven yellow cards)

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