Red, Yellow… Orange?

I’m back to football for this post.  Sorry if you’re not interested in football (soccer for North American readers) but you have to admit that the game produces some good talking points, irrespective of the action.

What I’d like to suggest is the introduction of a third card for a particular kind of offence.  At present, as you probably know, there is a red card for various offences that can be categorised as violent or dangerous, or for collecting two yellow cards in a match.  The yellow cards are not exactly discretionary, but clearly have a greater element of subjectivity, as they range from late tackles through time-wasting and dissent, on to things like removing a shirt in that most curious form of goal celebrations.

This umbrella of yellow-card offences is a bit too unwieldy, it seems to me.  Of course there is a need for cautions, which is what the yellow card essentially means, but the current system doesn’t overcome the cynicism which players deploy to spoil dangerous attacks by the other side. You even (scandalously) hear TV pundits saying that a defender had no choice but to “take one for the team” as he pulls an opponent back, and recently a Manchester United player was openly criticised for being naive when allowing an opponent to go past him and set up a goal.

I reckon that there is scope here for a card between the current two – orange will do – with a correspondingly mid-range penalty of being sent off for ten minutes.  They do this for a yellow card in rugby union, which adopted the sin-bin from ice hockey.  Since a football match is longer than rugby, maybe the time off should be longer, 15 minutes, perhaps, but that’s a detail.

The important thing is that it would be used to punish and thereby deter the cynical late challenge when a guy would otherwise be running clear, typically in a breakaway run.  Oh, I know my proposal wouldn’t deter such cheating in the last minute of a game, such as the shirt-tug by a Manchester City player yesterday against Arsenal, but I’m not claiming it would solve everything.  What I do feel is that the blatant “I’ll take a yellow here” obstruction, at any point in the game, is not only unfair for opposition and fans, but also cheats the neutral, who is almost by definition watching the game to see some good action, and preferably goals.  Goals are so rare in football that any attempt to reduce the chances must be a bad thing.

And because goals are so rare, penalties will always have a big effect on the result, so the orange card could also be used for players who are seen to dive (that is, to simulate contact inside the penalty area and earn a spot-kick).  At the moment the balance of risk and reward is unfair: the reward for conning the referee is great, while the risk of punishment – if it comes at all – is likely to be a trivial yellow card.  Make that a temporary sending-off and it would be a fairer equation.  Referees can already give a red card for denying an “obvious” goal-scoring opportunity; so it makes perfect sense (does it not?) to introduce a lesser charge for a likely or probable opportunity.

Football is one of the slowest sports to evolve when it comes to accepting new rules, so I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this in the near future.  After all, ask any group of fans about using technology to review key decisions (as they do in cricket, rugby, tennis, etc) and they’ll almost certainly agree that there is scope for this; yet apart from some  isolated experiments such as in the Dutch league we seem to be no nearer doing anything.  But introducing a third card would not involve any technology, or cause any delay in the game.  All it would require would be a recognition – easy to see for any experienced referee – of the deliberate denial of a likely goal-scoring opportunity by means of an “off-the-ball” block, trip or obstruction.  Come on – as one might almost say, “The future’s bright, the future’s….”



There are a couple of issues around personal records for footballers which I often think could be tidied up with some easy calculations.  One of them is seen in the question of appearances, and the other can be “spotted” in the case of penalties scored.

For appearances, it seems that modern players are constantly breaking records for club or country.  In the case of internationals (and this is true for rugby and cricket as well) it is clearly easier to play games these days compared to the number of matches years ago, because of all the extra friendlies and competitions with long qualifying rounds.   Now we can hardly complain about this. or turn the clock back, but when people talk about all-time records it would useful maybe to add in a percentage figure for the proportion of eligible matches played.  In cricket this obviously involves aggregates of runs and wickets: I wonder how Fred Trueman’s records (first to 300 Test wickets, if I recall) would compare with those modern bowlers who have overtaken him.  This sort of thing should be easily worked out in cricket, one of the most stats-obsessed sports.

In football the “number of appearances” issue is further clouded by the possibility of substitutions in the modern era.  Quite apart from the way that many players come on for half an hour (some of them deliberately deployed as impact subs), how many times have we seen tactical substitutions with two or three minutes left, or even deep into stoppage time. The guy hardly has time to take up position before the final whistle goes.  Yet it’s an “appearance”.

When I worked in departments keeping check of staff we used to talk in terms of “full-time equivalent”  (fte) posts.  Someone who worked for three days of five was working 60% of time, or 0.6 fte.  So you could work out how well staffed departments were even if they had a number of part-time staff, and compare them across the board.

If football appearances were worked out in the same way, it might give a better indication of how record-breaking players like Ryan Giggs (for whom I have a great admiration!) compare to former players.  Just a thought…

In the same spirit (but much less informally) it might be interesting to work out goal-scorers’ success without the added boost of penalties.  I haven’t got the figures to prove it, but once upon a time (when I were a lad!) penalties were hammered in by beefy defenders.  At some fairly recent point strikers have taken over the duties (the wonderful Bill Edgar wrote an article on this in the Times last year).  So people like Rooney or Shearer have scored scores from the spot, and again become record-breakers.

Now, it is clearly easier to score a penalty than from open play.  I’m not saying it’s easy; or that “me missus could do it”: simply that if you look at the stats (and the fact that we are all surprised at a miss) it is far easier to score from 12 yards with only the goalie there.  So I wonder what the records would look like if we gave (say) 0.5 fte goal for a penalty.  The trouble is, of course, that that in itself is an arbitrary way of counting things – though perhaps something more sophisticated could be worked out.  Again, it’s just a thought, not designed to revolutionise the record books but just to add another layer of meaning to the very bald statistics we so often get.