Tuesday 16 January 2018

What will football look like when Robbie is my age?

Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen is shown a yellow card by referee Robert Madley during the recent draw with Liverpool - a game he should have conceded a penalty in. Pic: Reuters
Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen is shown a yellow card by referee Robert Madley during the recent draw with Liverpool - a game he should have conceded a penalty in. Pic: Reuters

I wonder when Robbie Keane is my age what football will be like and whether it will be recognisable as the game we know and love?

The thought struck me while I was watching Robbie take his final bow on a great night at the Aviva and on reflection, I reckon I'm optimistic about the future.

For all the huge changes in terms of finance off the pitch, the game remains fundamentally the same as it was when I was playing.

But my main reason for optimism is the fact that the people who make the rules now seem to be listening to the concerns everyone has been voicing about things like diving, cheating and a pet hate of mine, fouling before set-pieces in the penalty area.

In the game against Oman, I was watching corners and free-kicks closely and I thought there was a definite change in the way both teams approached them.


Players seemed fully aware of the directive on pulling and dragging in the box and I saw very little of it.

Sure, this was a game totally dominated by Ireland and maybe a bad example to pick but I kept a close eye on the Premier League last weekend as well to see if the directive was being followed and it has to be said, the implementation is patchy.

More annoying is the fact that some commentators kept up their attack on Mike Dean as if he is the one out of step and not the referees who continue to talk the easy way out.

Danny Higginbotham reckons Dean "opened a can of worms….and referees must wonder what he has let them in for."

Given the fact that the referees are simply supposed to be implementing a long overdue directive on fouling in the penalty area, I'm not sure what Higginbotham means.

Nor could I understand Alan Shearer's notion that Robert Madley was right not to award a penalty against Spurs' Jan Vertonghen, a serial offender in penalty box dark arts, for pulling Liverpool's Joel Matip because he wasn't sure whether the ball was in play or not.

After the incident, Madley warned Vertonghen and my heart sank. This was the very approach which allowed foul play like this to become a very, very irritating part of the game.

There's a good comparison in rugby where the scrum became so contentious that they sat down and worked out some deliberate steps and calls for the referee to make which have helped a great deal.

It's far from perfect but to my uneducated eye, it's far better than it was.

To me, Mike Dean's approach will have exactly the same impact just as the directive on diving has, I believe, reduced the amount of cheating we have to put up with. When players know that they will be penalised immediately, they will stop committing the fouls and I notice that Mark Hughes suggested that he may have to change the way his team approaches set-pieces.

I was delighted to see that. Hughes is contemplating what I hope all managers will do and drive home the message on the training ground. Pulling and dragging is not acceptable and will cost penalties. Problem solved. I'll bet Martin O'Neill has had a word with the Irish lads and will underline the point before Ireland meet Serbia in Belgrade on Monday.

Set-pieces play are an important part of Ireland's arsenal and I expect referees will be keen to set a tone for the qualifying series ahead by following Dean's lead in England.

As far as the Oman game is concerned, it was nothing more than a kick around to send Robbie Keane on his way but it gave some players who haven't been playing for the clubs a run if nothing else.

My concern for this game and indeed the campaign is the fact that I still can't be certain which team will line-up wearing green.

I'm not stating anything radical by suggesting that consistency of selection is a good thing. Look at Iceland in France.

O'Neill has a few injury problems so that will complicate his decisions but he does have the momentum gained in France and the players will draw confidence from that.

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