SENIOR FIGURES within the Football Association, perturbed by a dramatic increase in Premier League dismissals this season, plan to address the problem "as a matter of seriousness". Discussions between the FA and their Premier League counterparts are planned for the next few days, and although use of the word "crisis" is being discouraged, there is no doubt that in some quarters the spectacle of yet another referee brandishing red is rapidly becoming a cause of embarrassment for the English game.
An FA source revealed last night: "We are extremely worried about the proliferation of red and yellow cards, and particularly concerned by the comparison with Europe and other countries. It's not a problem elsewhere, as far as we can establish."
After only three months of the season, the sendings-off by the referee David Elleray of Arsenal's Fredrik Ljungberg and Martin Keown in last Sunday's north London derby took the tally of red cards issued in Premiership games to 39. During the whole of last season there were 72 dismissals in the top flight. At the current rate, with five months of the season remaining, there is every prospect of the number rising to more than 100. There have also been 551 yellow cards in the same period.
The source added: "If you watch a Premiership game on Saturday and then, say, an Italian game on Sunday, or a Champions' League game, you'll see the difference. It's inevitable that we're asking, `What is going on here?' This is an important issue and we will be treating it as a priority."
The fact that foreign referees are not, apparently, respon-ding so expeditiously to illegal challenges tends to give the lie to the much-argued view that officials are utterly hamstrung by Fifa regulations. Anyone who has watched Champions' League matches this season will realise there is ample scope for discretion. Though some players give officials little option in their decisions - how many do you still see vehemently expressing their innocence after being cautioned for the now-outlawed tackle from behind? - there are also too many yellow cards brandished for challenges which should be punished by no more than a foul.
John Barnwell, chief executive of the League Managers' Association, who bears the brunt of his members' protestations about alleged poor refereeing, believes the issue is all about judgement. "If you analyse it you'll find that often when a player has been sent off for two bookables, one is for a minor infringement," he said. "That's what infuriates, that's what gets everybody's temper up. The punishment does not fit the crime.
"Take a player like Stanley Matthews, who jinked with the ball and held the ball out to you, almost saying `Come and get it'. …