Andy Townsend
Andy Townsend says referees need to get a grip of getting a grip!

There are many reasons to be looking forward to the new season, especially at the elite level of our world famous Premier League.

However, something still concerns me greatly on the eve of the big kick-off, and that is the failure of the recent amendments to the Laws to address contact between players at set pieces.

I’ve nothing against the emphasis on so-called triple jeopardy, the clamping down on abuse of officials, nor even the new-style set-up as the first whistle blows.

But could we not have finally got to grips with players getting to grips with each other?

At You Are The Ref it’s become known as grappling, but whatever you call it, for me enough is enough! Speaking as a former Premier League captain, at both Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, it’s all very well raising it in the pre-season visits made by those who manage the referees on their tour of club training grounds, and it’s all very well putting a letter on the noticeboard or sending an email.

But nothing works as well as the referee telling the captain before each kick-off, ‘look, this has to stop or I will point straight to the spot’, or something along those lines.

Speaking for myself, I would immediately march back to the dressing room and warn everyone, before going further and singling out any players I may be concerned about letting us down out there once the match was under way.

We have almost come to accept the ritual every weekend of shirt grabbing, pushing and pulling and for me it has become a credibility issue for the future of our top officials. I see these calls as every bit as crucial as marginal offsides and penalty decisions, on which such high stakes rest.

We should be more pro-active and sharper in our focus here, and yes, I do know a ref only has one pair of eyes as well as, when it is six versus six in the box, how difficult it is to see the wood for the trees sometimes given the hectic pace of our top flight.

That said, I applauded when Mike Dean penalised Chris Smalling at Newcastle for this very offence last season. It’s not good defending, it’s not good play and the lesson has to be learned one way or another.
Now, none of us pundits would like to be in the ref’s shoes and see our decisions pulled to pieces before an audience of millions, believe me.

Even so, I’m calling for consistency and honesty here, along with being prepared to call what you see, when you see it, instead of erring on the side of caution.

Things have to change from the current scenario, where a player thinks, ‘I might get away with this’, to the opposite way round, where he is worried that he might get done for this.

Players will not stop doing it on their own initiative, they won’t care about the example it sets to youngsters or that it’s not good for the game. It has to be the referees, therefore, that drive it out once and for all by remaining brave and consistent.

It simply has to be stopped and the referee, in my opinion, is the only one with the power to do it.