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Friday, Nov. 21, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Glacial pace of F.A. on discipline a joke


LONDON -- As you read this representatives of all the leading bodies in English football will be emerging from what was described as "a two-day lock-in" as they attempt to update the Football Association's disciplinary system, which is so out of date it is a wonder the fines are not paid in cattle.

Christopher Davies

Rarely has the F.A. been so publicly humiliated as in the past week. In fact, if someone had set it a bizarre challenge of getting something so hopelessly wrong it could have done no worse than the Alan Smith affair, which has made England a laughing stock.

To recap, last Friday at around 5 p.m. Alan Smith was called up for the friendly against Denmark two days later.

When the F.A. discovered the Leeds player had been arrested and questioned in connection with an alleged bottle throwing incident during the League Cup tie against Manchester United last month, it sent him home.

This reporter, using no more than good old fashioned journalistic techniques of attempting to tie up loose ends in an ongoing story, had telephoned West Yorkshire police that afternoon and they confirmed "a 23-year-old man" had been arrested and released on bail relating to the incident at Elland Road.

I knew it had happened but, it seems, Leeds (who would surely have told the F.A. when contacted about the release of the player) was not aware, nor was English football's ruling body.

There must have been a collective outbreak of buck-passing when F.A. chief executive Mark Palios asked his staff how this situation could have arisen.

Even though there would have been no outcry regarding Smith's inclusion from the media or public, the F.A. took a moral stance that saw it shoot itself not so much in the foot, as in every single toe.

Oh no, we can't have someone representing their country while a police investigation is pending, they said.

So they called up James Beattie of Southampton to replace Smith, unaware (!) that Beattie is still serving a drunk-driving ban and doing community service for the offense.

The ad hoc disciplinary system kicked in and Palios announced it was OK, Beattie could stay in the squad as his case had been dealt with.

In other words, if you have been found guilty of an offense it's perfectly in order for you to play for England, but if you are still innocent you cannot. You couldn't make it up.

The disciplinary think tank comprising representatives of the F.A., Premier League, Football League, Professional Footballers' Association, and League Managers' Association, plus a couple of referees probably reckon King Canute had an easier task than trying to change a disciplinary process that is full of contradictions, lacking logic or reason.

Those who have allowed the process to reach the current level of public embarrassment have themselves brought the game into disrepute.

Belatedly, Palios has ordered a revamp for next season, though perhaps breath should not be held.

In the age of super-professionalism it is the blazer brigade on the F.A. council which will probably still hold much power when it sits on the independent disciplinary commissions whose verdicts and punishments defy belief at times.

Everyone preaches consistency in the game, but there is precious little of that when it comes to discipline.

The three-man commissions are a law unto themselves, F.A. councilors comprising an independent body which does not have to explain why charges are changed, why players who appear to be blatantly guilty of stomping on opponents are let off "because it was their momentum" or why there is such a disparity in punishments.

Ade Akinbiyi of Wolves was fined £2,000 and given an extra one-game ban by a commission on top of the three-match suspension for head-butting Tony Vaughan of Nottingham Forest.

An F.A. statement said: "This shows, in serious cases, the F.A. is prepared to step in even if the matter has been dealt with by referees."

The horror tackle by Roy Keane on Alf Inge Haarland a year later was presumably not regarded "serious" or as bad as Akinbiyi's head-butt. Haarland might disagree.

In September 2001, Martin Keown of Arsenal was found guilty of striking Leeds' Mark Viduka and was handed a one-game ban plus a £10,000 fine.

Last month Keown was suspended for three games and fined £20,000 for "violent behavior towards Ruud van Nistelrooy" even though no punches were thrown.

Were Keown's admittedly petulant and unprofessional antics at Old Trafford three times worse than hitting an opponent?

Sol Campbell had his charge of violent behavior for retaliating to a thigh-high challenge by Manchester United's Eric Djemba-Djemba reduced to improper conduct -- the Arsenal defender was fined and not banned. Why Campbell's charge was downgraded has remained a mystery and a secret.

The speed, or lack of it, at which the F.A.'s disciplinary system moves must be altered.

Other European leagues can close a ground for two games just days after a crowd disturbance. In England, that would take three or four months -- minimum.

The F.A. should have a process whereby every Thursday all disciplinary matters from the previous weekend are dealt with. It is in no one's interests to have cases "open" for weeks or months on end.

In the meantime, Chelsea's Joe Cole is set to appear before a disciplinary commission the week after next -- eight months after the then West Ham player was charged with misconduct following last April's game at Bolton.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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