I got talking to my TalkSPORT colleague Ray Parlour recently about the differences in approach between today’s referee and those back in the old days.
I know it’s easy for old players to get together and joke about what you could get away with in the seventies, eighties, nineties and even further back, but when I think of challenges that went unpunished, there were plenty of occasions when I can assure you it was no laughing matter!
In theory at least, today’s official will use the step process, so that a player is quietly warned after a foul, then publicly warned before a yellow, another yellow or a red are deemed appropriate.
In practice, however, I find that they are too often scared of their own shadow! There is little room for leniency as they are mandated to punish specific offences, regardless of the stopwatch. I’m afraid, all the same, that this can mean common sense goes out of the window in favour of their determination to keep on the good side of those whose job it is to assess them.
They are not supposed to be making allowances any more, whereas leniency used to be easy to come by for defenders and midfielders. Obviously, I played with them in the same team and I was a witness in many a dressing room to some pretty frank instructions.
“Go through the ball and get the man as well, if you can,” was all too common, especially early doors.
You could not exactly call it a step process, but the phrase we used to hear a lot was “first one”, as if this appeal to the man in the middle’s better nature should earn you some kind of exemption.
Many’s the time I would try and turn that tactic around and be moaning to the ref, “that’s number three or four now, mate”, in an attempt to get the correct punishment meted out to my tormentor.
Protection was nowhere to be found more often than not, and the bit about letting some hairy-arsed centre-half off just because he’d caught you as early as possible was certainly never written down in any rulebook I ever saw!
When they were sticking their boot up around the heart area I would ask for a line to be drawn, and something else I would say to refs was, “Look, I might as well go off now, before I’m stretchered off.” Sometimes, but not as many times as I’d have liked, it worked.
One incident I’ll always remember where I came off worse by far was served up by that most usual of suspects, Mr Graeme Souness, who I’d represented Scotland with, shoulder to shoulder, by then.
I was playing for Ipswich at Anfield against that Liverpool side in its prime, and the pitch was in a particularly bumpy condition for Easter. Sure enough, first chance he got, in comes Graeme with a two-footed challenge that took his studs all the way up my thigh.
As he and the ref stood over me I said, “Come on ref, he could have killed me there!”
Souness just came back with, “If you weren’t a Jock, I would have done!”
To be fair it wasn’t just Graeme and in that first ten minutes you had to expect it from everywhere, and I mean everywhere. While I’m all for the Laws favouring the strikers and their ability to show off their skills, I don’t believe the lads playing today have a clue just how bad it used to be!
Until next time you can catch me on the Alan Brazil Sports Breakfast every week day on TalkSPORT, 6-10am.