Players advised to ‘drop the attitude and get on with it’ by new FA conduct rules

The latest round of Premier League games at the weekend saw a number of controversial decisions by referees, most notably involving Stoke City manager Mark Hughes. Hughes (living up to his nickname “Sparky”) was sent from the dug-out for remonstrating about a decision, a sending off that he maligned was a result of Premier League attempting to protect its image abroad.

Nevertheless, Hughes cannot claim that he was not warned. Players, managers, coaching staff and clubs were given advance notice of the FA’s new conduct rules which came into force from the start of the 2016/17 season. In a move to improve player and manager discipline, which is intended to curb “unacceptable levels” of “intolerable behaviour” by players and managers alike, clubs are being advised to inform their staff that they must control their reactions to referees’ decisions without confrontation.

What is new?

The FA’s new rules list a number of new red and yellow card offences which will remain open to varying forms of interpretation by different referees in different games. From this season, “visibly disrespectful behaviour” to match officials, including aggressive responses, face-to-face confrontation and even running towards a referee or an official to challenge a decision, may result in yellow cards for the offending player or manager. Behaviour that is deemed “insulting or abusive”, whether by language or through gestures, and with or without “aggressive or confrontational” physical contact, may now result in a red card.

From the beginning of this season, it is hoped that scenes such as managers charging out of their technical areas or players surrounding referees will gradually disappear.

‘Conduct’ in sport

Football has, particularly in recent years, received a lot of criticism and negative publicity due to the actions of managers and players seeking to gain a competitive advantage by constantly challenging decisions by referees. This may have the effect of undermining the referee’s authority, which is something the FA is actively seeking to put right with these new rules (despite the interesting fact that not one player has been sent off in the English Premier League for “insulting or abusive language” in the last five seasons). Clearly however, that fact is more indicative of a lack of authority of referees to act on such matters (due to the prior absence of a robust mandate to crack down on such offences), rather than players behaving themselves.

The easiest comparison to make is between football and rugby. In the latter discipline, players rarely  outwardly confront referees or question decisions. To highlight how seriously this issue is taken in rugby, the most high profile recent case was Dylan Hartley’s red card for swearing at referee Wayne Barnes during the AVIVA Premiership rugby final in 2013 – a decision that ultimately had a major bearing on the outcome of the match that his team, the Northampton Saints, eventually lost. Such a high profile incident has not been seen in the game since.

Football players have often been criticised by teammates, club staff, fans and pundits for a hysterical reaction when decisions go against them; often likened to disgruntled teenagers or children who don’t get their way. Wayne Rooney famously received a second yellow card in a 2005 Champions League match against Spanish side Villarreal for clapping sarcastically at a referee’s decision that he disagreed with. In the short term, as Mark Hughes has found out, such incidents are likely to receive greater publicity as a result of these new rules until managers and players fully adapt to how these new rules are implemented by the officials.

Who will be affected?

Many pundits and fans consider that the modern professional football game is infected with foul-mouthed disobedience and overpaid prima donnas who simply cannot accept when they do not get what they want. To them, this move by the FA will be welcomed.

Others will bemoan the sanitisation of the game, where incidents happen in during fast and highly competitive football, resulting in the emotive passion that fans enjoy and demand.

What is guaranteed is that, for players and managers, this will place increased pressure on them to control their emotions during the heat of the moment; and, in a tightly contested match, this may be difficult and could result in game-changing consequences if a manager or player is dismissed as a result.

For referees, they must strike a balance between the strict interpretation of these rules and the spectacle of a game, which can often be ruined as a result of player dismissals.

Will anything actually change?

The FA hopes that these new conduct rules will prompt a major shift in player and manager attitudes, consequently improving the image of the game as a whole, and the images of players as ‘role models’ to younger fans.

The effectiveness of these new rules will depend firstly on how clubs, coaches and players approach them, and secondly how referees enforce them. There is certainly the potential for some games to reach farcical new depths if players are booked or dismissed from the field, for actions that were previously regarded as minor, such as waving their arms in a manner that is deemed “aggressive” or if they question a referee who fails to book a player for diving, for example.

Naturally, this will place added pressure on referees and likely increase the criticism they receive.

This is an example of a national governing body trying to manage an unfavourable trend that is giving the game a bad name. Whether these new conduct rules will have the desired effect remains to be seen. One thing is certain however, TV highlights programs and pundits will certainly be given fresh new content to discuss each week as Mark Hughes has found to his detriment.

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