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Blue cards plan: Did sin bins work in trials? Would they succeed at the top level?

This is an updated version of an article first published in December 2023.

It was the summer of 2019 when Mark Bullingham outlined a new era for grassroots football across England. An initial pilot period that had spanned two seasons and 31 regional leagues had convinced the Football Association that sin bins should be introduced at each and every amateur level.

“They empower referees to issue punishment for dissent offences that will be served immediately,” said Bullingham, then the FA’s chief commercial and football development officer.

Dissent, he felt, had become an “entirely unnecessary and ugly part of football” and trials offered enough evidence to show sin bins were an effective deterrent for those overstepping the mark.

Bullingham has clearly not altered his view. Now the FA’s chief executive and director of the International Football Association Board (IFAB, the sport’s lawmakers), he was among those who agreed to run trials of sin bins in “high professional football” when meeting in London in November.

The proposals moved a step closer this week with confirmation that blue cards will form part of a sin bin trial in senior football. The cards will be shown to those guilty of dissent, surrounding the officials or a tactical foul, and mean the player must serve a 10-minute period in the sin bin when the trials begin next season.

IFAB and Pierluigi Collina, FIFA referees committee chairman, believe it is an approach worthy of further exploration, although FIFA have said that the trials will initially be restricted to “lower levels” of football.

“The success of sin bins in the grassroots game has been prevention, rather than cure,” said Bullingham in November. “You get to a point where players know the threat of sin bins, so don’t transgress. And we would hope that it would make the same change.”

It is often said that the grassroots game mimics the actions of those at the highest level but not on this occasion. The FA — and by extension, IFAB — has looked to the bottom of the English pyramid for a lead on the best means of tackling poor conduct.

For the last four years — and even longer in parts of the country where the FA’s trials were first held — players have been sent to the sin bin for dissent. It’s the same in the men’s and women’s games, junior and senior: chat back, get binned.

“When they were first brought in, we had a lot of people questioning it but the reality is that the referees see it as a vital tool in their armoury, that ability to diffuse situations,” says Adam Lowthorpe, chief executive of the East Riding FA, one of 50 county organisations in England that typically oversees at least 400 games every weekend.

“It tends to calm down a lot of situations. There’s probably only a handful of games where you’ve had more than one instance of a player being sin-binned. A player has gone off for 10 minutes, they’ve calmed down and the game goes on. It’s now an accepted thing.

“Have sin bins been the answer to all of our problems with the abuse of referees? No, clearly not. But it is another tool that can help referees manage situations.”

The important distinction, for now, is the breadth of misdemeanours that will result in a sin bin through IFAB’s proposed trials. Only dissent can bring that punishment at grassroots level, with surrounding a referee or cynical fouls not falling into that bracket.

The FA has become acutely aware of the abuse aimed at its referees and, as well as trialling bodycams for the first time last season, the introduction of sin bins in 2019 was considered a preventative measure in a greater challenge.

Bullingham with FIFA president Gianni Infantino earlier this year (Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images)

A senior fixture will see a player sin-binned for 10 minutes, while in junior football, where games are shorter, it is eight minutes. The player is free to return once the time has elapsed but another sin-binning will make them ineligible for the remainder of the game. They can, though, still be substituted once the 10 minutes are up. Offences deemed worthy of punishment include questioning an official’s ability, slamming the ball into the ground and sarcastically clapping.

It mirrors other sports, including rugby union, rugby league and ice hockey, in which certain offences are not deemed serious enough to warrant a permanent dismissal but bring a short-term numerical disadvantage for the player’s team. Some local FAs have opted to use a blue card, as opposed to yellow, to clearly signal a player has been sin-binned and it is that colour that IFAB intend to use in its own trials.

The FA’s numbers back up its arguments. In 2019, when rolled out nationwide, it was said that 25 of its 31 trial leagues had seen a reduction in dissent and, tellingly, the overwhelming majority of players, coaches and officials wanted sin bins to be continued.

A sin-binning is still common enough on any given Sunday. Although they do not bring the mandatory £12 ($15) fine attached to yellow cards, the East Riding FA had 384 players sent to a sin bin last season, with another 177 so far this season. The average is between 20 and 25 players being sin-binned each weekend from between 400 and 450 eligible games, from under-sevens to veterans.

“I think the majority are in favour of it, I really do,” says Martin Cassidy, chief executive of Ref Support UK, a registered charity offering training and support to referees.

“The only reason I don’t think they’re used more is that it’s another thing for the grassroots referee to worry about. If there was an easier way to control and deliver it — and I’m not sure what that is — then it would be really useful. All the stats tell you sin bins work.

Sam Cane was sin-binned in this year’s rugby union World Cup final before his offence was upgraded to a red card (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“When sin bins have been used, they’ve definitely thrown water on the flames of violence against referees. In games where sin bins are used, you’re less likely to have a violent incident.

“You look at bodycams, points deductions and sin bins (at grassroots) and at least the FA are having a go. I’m all for sin bins.”

Andrew Dixon is the manager of Great Driffield in the Humber Premier League and Great Driffield Warriors under-14s in the Hull and District Youth Football League, and has cause for bemoaning the changes that have altered the disciplinary landscape in recent years.

“My son was sin-binned last weekend for asking a few questions of the referee,” he says. “Or that’s what he told me he’d said.”

Dixon is laughing but he would not see it taken away. As an experienced coach in both senior and junior football, he has seen its benefits.

“Initially, people were sceptical because some refs might use it and some won’t,” he said. “When it first came in you had some refs using it willy-nilly and you couldn’t even speak with them. The purpose of it was maybe getting misconstrued.

“It’s part of the game at our level now. The idea is for players to stop abusing referees and you can’t knock that. Overall, it’s been very good.

“I read that (Brighton’s) Lewis Dunk was the first player sent off in the Premier League for more than 10 years for dissent and that’s ridiculous when you see how some of them are behaving. They’re giving the ref all sorts and there are no consequences. You’d expect this would help change that.

“At grassroots, you need referees because there’s a shortage. They’re getting £30 a game and sometimes it can be dog’s abuse they’re getting. Take them away and we haven’t got a game have we?”

Professional football does not have those worries but there is an increasing concern from within IFAB that the conduct of players is deteriorating. “Something has to be done, otherwise this might be the cancer that will kill football,” said Collina in November.

Not that everyone is on board. Everton boss Sean Dyche has been among the most vocal in doubting the purpose of sin bins. “I don’t know why they don’t leave the game alone at times, I don’t think it is needed,” he said. “I don’t think it is wanted but fans might have a different view.”

Tottenham Hotspur manager Ange Postecoglou was more blunt in his assessment. “Yeah, bin it, mate,” he told reporters when asked about the introduction of sin bins. “Just bin the whole idea, forget about it. I don’t know why they keep interjecting themselves into the game.”

Dyche also questioned the practicalities of the punishment, such as how a sin-binned player would be allowed to keep moving to negate the risk of injury when they return. All of that will come under discussion from within IFAB before its AGM on March 2, held in Loch Lomond, when any changes to football’s laws are formally debated.

“The consistencies of whether it’s enforced or not is one of our biggest challenges,” says Lowthorpe, who has seen all his officials receive specialist training on sin bins, as well as all clubs receiving revised guidelines.

“You have some of our more experienced referees who’d say they can manage the situation and deal with it themselves. Then you’ve got a youngster who thinks it’s best to take action and put someone in the bin for something that wouldn’t have brought the same action the week before. That would be a challenge at all levels, where you find that consistency.

“The challenge for the top end of the game is where they set the bar and how consistent they can be, so players know exactly what constitutes dissent. You’d see referees spending a lot of time in clubs explaining to players to ensure there’s no doubt what will happen.”

Cassidy believes the implementation of sin-binning will turn out to be easier at the highest level.

“For a grassroots referee, it can be another thing to worry about, people shouting, ‘C’mon ref, that’s eight, nine minutes, 10 minutes’.

“But at pro level, you’ve got assistants, a fourth official. It would be far easier to put in place, so it would be more productive and effective. There’s no reason it can’t be managed. It would be brilliant.

“Referees often talk about this ‘orange card’ mentality. More than a yellow but not quite a red. This would fit perfectly in there.”

No one expects sin bins to be the silver bullet — not when the abuse of officials remains a deep-rooted problem at grassroots level. Suspensions were handed out to 380 players and coaches for attacking or threatening match officials in 2021-22, a season when sin bins were operational across England. The majority, though, regard it to be a step in the right direction.

“Nobody wants to see 10 against eight but the principle of the sin bin is that referees have the power to do it,” says Lowthorpe. “They can hopefully stop it happening in the first place.”

(Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

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