James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: If Paul Coutts is a hatchet man, it’s time to change the laws

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Just over a fortnight ago, as Sheffield United prepared for their visit to Leeds, I spent an evening watching re-runs of the West Yorkshire club’s FA Cup final battle with Chelsea in 1970.

The matches, which took place at Wembley and Old Trafford, were enthralling. Bloody, quite literally, brutal too.

Asked to review the replay nearly thirty years later, referee David Elleray concluded that six red cards and 20 yellow would have been awarded during the course of the match. Eric Jennings, who actually oversaw the Londoners’ victory following a 2-2 draw in the capital, only admonished Ian Hutchinson.

Which set me thinking: Is it time to change football’s disciplinary protocols? Particularly the ‘totting-up’ process whereby players who are cautioned five times during the opening 19 fixtures of a season automatically receive a suspension. After all, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour have changed beyond all recognition since it was first introduced many moons ago.

When United return to action following the international break, with a potentially combustible trip to Burton Albion, two members of Chris Wilder’s squad will start the contest knowing they are a booking away from a ban. Enda Stevens is one and Leon Clarke, who has already been sent-off once this season, the other. Neither, it is fair to say, can be described as hatchet men. Like John Fleck and Paul Coutts, who have already fallen foul of this system, they are hardly in the Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris or Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter mould.

Although the trend is not completely constant, the number of cautions awarded over the course of a Championship season has increased over the last five seasons. Without studying the figures, I bet the same can be said of leagues One and Two as well. So far this term, the most-booked player has had his name taken, on average, every 140 minutes compared to 237 for the 10th worst behaved. In 2016/17, those figures were 184 and 314 compared to 249 and 204 the campaign before. Then 201/306 and finally 237/287.

It is hardly surprising given the seemingly incessant clampdowns officials are tasked with overseeing. Every single summer, there is a fresh moral panic about something the laws of the game already cover. But a new directive is issued just in case and the card count increases as a result.

Rather than adopting the default position of simply blaming the Football Association or, more accurately, The International Football Association Board, footballers themselves must share some of the blame. I remember a conversation with the late, great Gary Speed when, as we discussed a United team mate’s brushes with authority, he bemoaned the fact that tackling is no longer viewed as an art.

“People just don’t teach it anymore,” Speed told me. “So there’s no wonder players get themselves in trouble because it’s not taken as seriously as passing or shooting even though it’s just as important.”

Feigning injury or other forms of cheating, which are becoming increasingly prevalent, make the problem even worse.

Paul Coutts has been suspended already this season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Paul Coutts has been suspended already this season: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Nevertheless, given that celebrating a goal in front of their own supporters can now get a footballer booked, perhaps it is time to reassess the situation?

The number of cautions a player can accrue before being suspended should increase to six or seven. Just a thought.

Enda Stevens is also close to being banned: Joe Perch/Sportimage

Enda Stevens is also close to being banned: Joe Perch/Sportimage