It’s the oldest trick in the marketing book, really. You get something that already exists, preferably something that people have forgotten about, you blow the dust off it and give it a bit of spit and polish, then present it to the public as something new. Simple.
That is pretty much what the Football Association did this week, when they announced a new CRACKDOWN on bad behaviour by Premier League players. In fact, head honcho Richard Scudamore performed the rather unlikely logical gymnastics of announcing the Brand New Thing in one breath, before pausing for another then confirming it wasn’t actually a Brand New Thing at all.
“We’re looking to make a step change in the way our participants behave and how they are seen around the world,” Scudamore began. “It starts with applying the laws of the game. There is no law change. The laws of the game allow for this to be managed.” So a step change, but actually no change at all? Cool.
Still, while there has been no actual alteration of the laws, there will be a switch in how they are enforced, with referees encouraged to come down with the force of Thor’s almighty hammer on anyone who is a bit rude to the officials. For instance, we can welcome back the days when ‘foul and abusive language’ is a given reason for a red card, which has a nice little nostalgic twinge to it. Stuart Pearce, of all people, once got sent off for this particular potty-mouthed transgression, which is a bit like nabbing one of the Kray twins for an unpaid parking ticket.
The ‘new’ regulations include permitting refs to hand out yellow cards for, among other things, any contact with the referee in a ‘non-aggressive manner’, running towards an official to contest a decision (presumably if they walk or bogle it’s fine), various forms of naughty conduct in the technical area and ‘a yellow card for at least one player when two or more from a team surround a match official’. That last one is interesting: how will the referee decide which of the mob to book? The loudest? The biggest? The one who runs at him in the most aggressive manner? The one with the worst breath?
Is this a good thing? Well, probably, on balance, yes – it’s nice to be nice, after all, and these referees are just trying to do a basically impossible job. Indeed, it’s faintly depressing that people need this sort of reminder not to be dicks, like those posters you see on trains asking passengers not to abuse staff. This is simply a reinforcement of the old rules, an upping of the their power to be applied, the equivalent of turning community support officers into actual coppers.
However, we might lose a few of the more entertaining sights in football, that of a player losing their thread and going at the ref, in full ‘hold me back lads, I’ll swing for him’ mode, spittle all over the shop and eyes wider than Bez. The beauty of these incidents is that they often happen with the most unexpected people: sure, we’ve seen Roy Keane and Paolo Di Canio go postal at an official, but who remembers when David Prutton did it? Prutton, to that point largely noticeable for looking a bit like a slightly wet trainee leisure centre attendant, lost his brain while playing for Southampton, shoved referee Alan Wiley out of his path and we were treated to the amusing sight of Harry Redknapp dashing down the touchline (this was when his knees worked) to prevent his man from digging out the lino’s thorax.
And what are these players to do with their pent-up aggression? Most players in the game today have grown up in the game where haranguing the officials is standard, so it’s essentially an instinct: without trying to justify it, these players are not going to slink quietly away after an iffy penalty call as soon as the season starts, no matter how many yellow cards are dished out. Perhaps they will provide a punching bag on the touchline. Or a yoga mat and some joss sticks to calm their temper.
Still, for one man, this is heavenly news. One man has been waiting for this moment for his whole life. One man was born for this. And that man is Mike Dean.
Dean is that heady combination of a showman and someone who can remove the joy from any situation. He is the sort of referee who will put on a display while officiating, who seems to take great pleasure in issuing cards of any colour, the fire of passion dancing behind his eyes as he withdraws his notebook. Dean strikes you as a man who got into refereeing not for involvement in or passion for the game, but more that he enjoys punishing people and doesn’t quite have the upper-body strength to do so physically. He enjoys causing pain in a relatively minor way, like a half-hearted dominatrix who’s forgotten her whip. Kevin Pietersen described former England cricket coach Andy Flower as a ‘mood hoover’, and you can imagine Dean is the same: killing conversation in a pub by pointing out a technical problem with someone’s joke.
All of which is to say that there is no more perfect man for these extended powers than Dean. Imagine the glee on his face if he hears a swear word, spinning around and screeching ‘WHO DID THAT?’ like a schoolteacher who just felt a spatter of ink on their back. Just picture him jumping up and down if he spots someone running towards him to remonstrate. Think of how absolutely delighted he’ll be should he feel a brush of contact against his sleeve. He’ll be celebrating wildly again.
So it’s broadly good news for most people, mostly Mike Dean. But maybe not Arsenal fans.