Peter Young
8 July 1999
England Football Online
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Comment: England's Disciplinary Problems

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From the best-behaved team to the worst inside a year

See also Team and Player Discipline

[Note:  Since this comment was written, England have had an eighth player sent off, the fourth in 12 matches over little more than a year--David Batty for a foul late tackle against Poland in the 2000 European Championship qualification match against Poland on September 8, 1999 in Warsaw--and have again been cautioned by UEFA for "improper conduct of the team"--the five cautions they drew in the 2000 European Championship playoff match against Scotland on November 13, 1999 in Glasgow.]

UEFA have imposed two fines on England for "improper conduct of the team" during the Euro 2000 qualifying matches against Sweden and Bulgaria on June 5 and 9, 1999.  The sanctions were imposed because of the unacceptable number of cards England players drew in each match.  Against Sweden, Paul Scholes was red carded when he committed a second cautionable offence, and David Batty, Alan Shearer and Andy Cole drew yellow card cautions.  Against Bulgaria, Gareth Southgate, Teddy Sheringham Robbie Fowler and Sol Campbell were cautioned. 

England have long been renowned for sportsmanship on the field of play and won the fair play awards at World Cups 1990 and 1998 (the latter shared with France) and Euro 1996.  Yet the present England side have by far the worst disciplinary record of any team in Euro 2000 qualifying.  In the six matches played thus far, the team has drawn two red cards (Paul Ince for a second cautionable offence against Sweden in Solna kommun, Stockholms l�n September 5, 1998  and Paul Scholes for the same reason in the return match against Sweden at Wembley June 5, 1999) and 18 yellow cards (including the two yellows each for Ince and Scholes on which their red cards were based).  In addition to the three-match and two-match suspensions handed to Ince and Scholes, respectively, Jamie Redknapp drew a one-match suspension for incurring his second yellow card in the competition--which came in England's second game in the competition.  England have not played a single match in the competition without drawing a card; the closest they came was against Luxembourg October 14, 1998, when David Beckham drew their only yellow card.  Ten England players--Darren Anderton, Michael Owen, Beckham, Tim Sherwood, Cole, Batty, Shearer, Fowler, Southgate and Campbell--are carrying a yellow card and will be suspended from England's crucial final qualifying match in Poland September 8 if they draw another yellow card in the penultimate match against Luxembourg September 4.

In the 749 matches England played from the first in 1872 through the meeting with Colombia at World Cup 1998, the team had only four players expelled.  In their last 10 matches over the past year, they have almost doubled that total, incurring three more expulsions, beginning with David Beckham's red card against Argentina in England's last match at World Cup 1998.  One of these, Scholes', was the first time an England player had been sent off on English soil.

Something is seriously wrong with a team that, within the space of a year, has gone from fair play award winner to sanctions for "improper conduct of the team."

It will not do to blame the referee.  There are too many referees involved.  The disciplinary problems have continued no matter who the referee is.

It will not do to blame changes in the laws of the game and their interpretation.  The red cards were all deserved under the laws as they were applied a decade ago, and the same is true of all but one or two of the yellow cards.

Apparently England's fair play record means very little to most of the current crop of players.  Nearly all the yellow card offences--including those that resulted in expulsion--were entirely unnecessary as a tactical matter.  They usually occurred in neutral territory far from the danger zone.  The fact that the closest England came to a card-free Euro 2000 qualifying game was the match against Luxembourg suggests that the problem arises when England face talented opposition.  The more difficult the opposition, the more England's players resort to fouling and unsportsmanlike conduct.  The problem reflects not only of lack of discipline--and lack of maturity--but also  the team's poor performances.    These players know they are not performing up to their capabilities, and they continually vent their frustration on the pitch.   Strong leadership should go a long way to resolving the problem, and for that we must look first to the manager and second to the captain.

The English media have largely ignored England's disciplinary problems, and only the Daily Telegraph has mentioned, belatedly, the UEFA fines.  Manager Kevin Keegan continues to wear a Teflon coat as he has almost entirely escaped criticism for the wave of disciplinary offences which has brought England to a new low.  He has managed one victory in four matches, at home to a poor Polish team, his tactical plans, such as they are, have proven woefully inadequate, and his only contribution has been to instil in the players a "gung-ho" mentality with a spate of cards the only tangible result.  Alan Shearer is too preoccupied with overcoming his own problems--the long-term effects of his injuries and his lack of form--to exercise effective leadership.  Meanwhile, England dodder on, their Euro 2000 qualification hopes teetering and their reputation for fair play in tatters.

One consequence is clear.  Because of the England team's reputation for fair play, many referees gave England's players the benefit of the doubt in circumstances where players for other teams would have been carded without hesitation.  That is now gone forever--and rightly so in view of England's recent record.