By Sam Holden
REFEREES need to clamp down on serial holders and grapplers who are getting away with ‘cheating’ according to former Premier League official Graham Poll.
Manchester United players, defending a free kick, wrestled two Chelsea players to the ground in the penalty box at Old Trafford on Sunday, the latest in a series of goalmouth grapples.
Referee Phil Dowd was unmoved by protests from John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic and the fouls, by Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo, went unpunished.
Chelsea captain Terry said he and Ivanovic were “double headlocked at every corner” during the league leaders’ 1-1 draw.
Poll, who refereed in the Premier League for 14 years until retiring in 2007, said it was time for officials to be more pro-active and show a player a yellow card for holding an attacker before a set-piece is taken, as a deterrent.
“It is time to now deal with grappling and holding in the penalty area,” he wrote in his column for the Daily Mail on Monday. “Tackling this issue is long overdue. It’s not about a change in the law, it’s about the appropriate enforcement of the law.
“Grabbing, holding, grappling; however you describe it, is pure cheating. It’s an issue that is preventing goals from being scored.
“Giving a penalty is a massive thing for a referee, but interrupting the game before a corner or free kick can be taken to issue a yellow card to culprits is easily enforceable.
“We already see referees prevent corners being taken so they can verbally warn players about holding and grappling. It’s time for the talk to stop and the cards to come out,” Poll, who refereed at two World Cups, added.
Dowd may have failed to punish United’s hands-on approach to defending at the weekend but his fellow referees have previously taken action against what many pundits are calling ‘the dark arts’.
Two weeks ago, a penalty was awarded when Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross was penalised for holding Swansea City’s Wilfred Bony as a corner was taken, and the Ivorian striker duly dispatched the spot kick.
Shawcross’ offence was less blatant than that at Old Trafford but perhaps he was being watched more closely. He holds the unenviable record of conceding the most penalties in the league since the 2008-09 season with his tally at seven.
When referees met every Premier League club before the start of the season to discuss the interpretation of the laws of the game, neither the players nor the managers at each club saw grappling in the box as a problem to be addressed.
If clubs did want officials to tackle the issue they could raise it with the Referees’ Association but until there is a groundswell of support for tougher action from teams, the league will not change the way these incidents are handled.
Former Chelsea captain Ron Harris, who made a record 795 appearances for the club and was renowned for his tough approach to defending, said wrestling was a modern phenomenon that could be stopped only if referees started awarding penalties.
“It happens in every Premier League game every week,” he told Reuters in an interview on Monday. “It’s a disease that has come into the game in the last few years and it’s getting worse and worse.
“If you did the same (grappling) outside of the box it would be given. Most referees aren’t brave enough to give penalties but if they did defenders would stop doing it.
“Most defenders don’t even look at the ball nowadays, they’re too busy manhandling their opponent. It didn’t happen in my playing days, you were too busy defending the ball.”