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CHRIS SUTTON: My 10 ways to save football

Never one to shirk a challenge on or off the pitch, Chris Sutton brings you his hard-hitting opinions every week in Sportsmail. Here, in extracts from his brilliant new book You’re Better Than That! How To Fix Modern Football he sets out ways to solve 25 problems holding back the game we all love. Here are 10 of the changes he recommends…  

According to Kick It Out, reports of racism at football matches in England rose by 43 per cent in 2018-19. It is so depressing in the 21st century. We have been talking about this for decades. It is not an issue confined to eastern Europe, Italy or Spain, and we need to clean it up right away.

In August 2019, Millwall were fined £10,000 for a section of supporters singing racist songs during an FA Cup tie. In isolation, this seems a tame punishment. Set it against other fines and it is insultingly low.

The month after, Huddersfield were fined £50,000 for wearing fake Paddy Power-sponsored shirts in a pre-season friendly — apparently five times worse than racist singing. Leeds were fined £200,000 when a staff member was found in the vicinity of Derby’s training ground. A fine of £10,000 is not showing racism the red card. It is giving it the mildest talking-to.

Sometimes the man talks, but he never makes sense any more.When it is time to go, I don’t say goodbye. If he can somehow understand me, I don’t want him to get anxious or angry, upset or disappointed. I leave the man sitting in the chair, hunched and motionless. There is nothing there any more, but I love this man.

The man in the chair is my dad Mike. To see him like this breaks my heart. My dad was a colossus, a superb athlete and played for Norwich, Chester and Carlisle. After his playing career, he went to Loughborough University, did a biology degree and became a well-respected teacher for 30-odd years. He was a clever guy, a strong character with great humour.

He now has advanced stage dementia and lives in a home. Dementia is a cruel master. It robs you of who you are. It wipes out the memories and leaves a blank page. It eats away, minute by minute, until the inevitable end.

My dad is far from the only ex-footballer suffering. In 2002, former West Brom and England striker Jeff Astle passed away from dementia aged just 59. The coroner said his death was the result of an ‘industrial disease’, His head had suffered repeated minor trauma, most probably from frequently heading footballs.

You would have thought, following the death of such a high-profile player, the authorities would fire into action. But it was 15 years after Astle’s death that the FA and PFA joined forces to fund truly significant research. What the hell took them so long?

It is not as if the PFA didn’t have the resources. This is an organisation that reportedly spent £1.9million on a Lowry painting and pays its chief executive, Gordon Taylor, a seven-figure salary — the highest earning union official in the world.

In 2017, my old strike partner Alan Shearer sat down with Taylor and cut to the chase. ‘You’ve got 50,000 members,’ he asked. ‘Do you know how many have dementia?’ Taylor puffed out his cheeks. ‘No, I don’t.’ That Taylor was not in possession of even a ballpark figure was staggering.

I’m considering legal action against the PFA or the FA on behalf of my father. I want people to realise this is a very serious issue that has been neglected and ignored for so long. Action needs to be taken now. It is a disgrace.

People talk about Lionel Messi being the greatest player of all time, but it is impossible to compare him to the likes of his compatriot Diego Maradona — I don’t think Maradona ever got a tackle below his ankles.

We can all applaud Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but there is a strong argument to say Maradona and George Best were better — they had to put up with a far greater physical and mental challenge. If Messi and Ronaldo had played against Chopper Harris, Billy Bremner and Billy McNeill it would have been fascinating to see how they coped with being tackled around their waist a few times.

Football’s not supposed to be easy. So I’m calling for a loosening of the laws, such as the resurrection of the rule that allows tackling from behind as long as you get the ball. Let’s return the game to a more adversarial, gladiatorial contest. I’m not talking about elbowing someone in the face. If you come off your feet and win the ball, what’s the big deal?

The game is a different art these days, based on passing, athleticism and fitness. But fans of a certain vintage would agree it was much more of a spectator sport when it retained its physicality. Today’s robots need to show human qualities again.

Whatever happened to glory for glory’s sake? The game has become too influenced by finance — that is why the FA Cup is not important to big clubs. Do we understand? Yes. Does it make it right? Absolutely not. So, what is the answer?

Quotas — a certain number of players who played in the league the previous week have to be picked for the Cup tie.

Return the semi-finals to grounds around the country. Going back to my childhood, only the final was played at Wembley. It was a big deal to get there.

The pure glory of winning the thing is not enough, you have got to turn clubs’ heads. And if the reward for winning the FA Cup was a Champions League place, those heads would be spinning around to pay attention. Managers would pick their best players. We would get our FA Cup back.

Every rule has to make the game more exciting, more competitive. But there has been too much change for change’s sake, producing rules that should never have been proposed, let alone passed:

‘Even if accidental, it will be a free-kick if a player gains control of the ball after it has touched their hand/arm and then scores, or creates a goalscoring opportunity.’

However, any handball by the defending side remains a matter of subjectivity, the referee interpreting the intentions of the player. If there was consistency that would be fair, but this tweak puts the attacking side at a disadvantage. And there was me thinking we were trying to create a game that gave us more goals.

‘The player being substituted must leave the pitch by the nearest point.’

This is bonkers, isn’t it? The ref should just stop his watch while the player ambles towards the bench at the speed of a tortoise. If it is an attempt to waste time, not a second will be lost.

Are lawmakers drawing up these changes for the sake of the game, or to look busy and protect their jobs? ‘Let’s have a meeting about a technical area. How big should it be?’ ‘Let’s have a meeting about how many subs are allowed on the bench.’ ‘How about ruling out goalkeepers touching the crossbar when it’s a penalty?’

While we laugh at these absurd modifications, there are big issues being ignored.

I was all in favour of VAR in the Premier League. From the start, though, they made a pickle of it.

Firstly, the policy of dissuading referees from consulting the pitchside monitor was curious at best, deeply flawed at worst. Secondly, intervention only comes after a ‘clear and obvious error’. You don’t want Stockley Park to feel they have to back the referee. Their job is to uphold the laws of the game and offer a correction when the referee has made an error.

The approach I favour is the one used in MLS. If the decision goes to VAR, the video team make a judgment on how they see it on the screen. If they feel they would have to interrogate the footage to the nth degree to decide, they allow the goal.

‘I didn’t even know there was a football team called Bury — I’m not a football fan.’

These were not the words of a day-tripper at Gigg Lane. It was the unembarrassed admission by the club’s owner. The man whom fans are supposed to trust.

Steve Dale took over Bury in 2018, paying £1 to take on the financially-stricken club. Eight months later, Bury were expelled from the Football League. The EFL need to ask whether the mechanism allowing new owners to take over is fit for purpose. In Bury’s case, it clearly wasn’t.

When a new owner comes in, the first question the fans will ask is, ‘What are his intentions? How is he going to take us forward?’ To avoid another historic club being removed, the fullest diligence needs to be observed when assessing a prospective owner’s suitability. But, among all the robust regulations required to avoid a repeat of Bury — check that person has actually visited the town before.

We would all be lying if we said we would not be tempted by a humongous wage increase from elsewhere. So why do we frown at a footballer who makes that decision? But tell us straight, you have gone for the dosh. If you want to play in China or Qatar, don’t say it is a better league than the Premier League — give us the truth.

A global cap would go some way to ensuring players switch clubs for footballing reasons, not financial ones. A player would be way more likely to choose a Serie A club over a Chinese one if offered the same terms. The pursuit of prestigious trophies would become the purpose of his career. And we would see the best players playing for the best teams in the best leagues. That has to be the ultimate objective, doesn’t it?

There has been a cap in the NFL since 1994 and you never see a poor NFL player. Nor are they focused on obscene wealth. They get on with the task at hand: achieving sporting glory.

Who would be a referee? Who would choose a job where being verbally abused, often viciously, happened every time you turned up for work? It’s small wonder they are a declining species — nearly 7,000 hung up their whistles at the end of the 2018-19 season.

They need protection. And football could learn from rugby where only the captain is allowed to speak to the referee. This would return respect to the game, especially if a yellow card was brandished each time a player other than the captain spoke out of line. There is nothing wrong with that kind of discipline.

At the end of a rugby match, players aren’t haranguing the referee all the way back to the dressing room. Nor does a rugby referee need to lurk on the pitch after the final whistle, waiting for his linesmen and a ring of stewards to chaperone him off the pitch. There is mutual respect between player and official. We could learn from them.

The 21st century offers too many shiny distractions. The smartphone and the tablet is producing a generation that has forgotten the value of playing sport. I’ve got talented sons but I can’t get one of them off their iPad or phone. If only they spent the same amount of time practising football as they do on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, WhatsApp…

The problem extends beyond participation. All the time our children’s backsides are glued to the sofa, they are not getting out to watch sport. The Football Supporters’ Federation calculated that the average League Two club needs 5,000 fans every match to keep above water. League One clubs need 10,000. In 2018-19, 31 of those 48 clubs had average attendances less than half their ground’s capacity.

A handful of lower-league clubs can only see extinction for clubs at their level unless action is taken to sign up the supporters of tomorrow. In the National League South, Dulwich Hamlet give free tickets to local kids and parents. Around a third come back again, 10 per cent return regularly and five per cent become season-ticket holders.

It is crucial other teams follow suit to avoid catastrophe. The foundations of our football pyramid are crumbling and grassroots football could become a footnote in history. And there’s a fair chance kids will not even look up from their phones to notice.

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