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Nick Irvine: Can football learn from hockey rules?

As we look forward to a packed hockey calendar in 2017 it is good to know that for once rule changes are going to be few and far between. In recent years my routine preparation for commentary has usually had to start with a review of which set of rules or interpretations will be in force!

Arguably, too many changes have caused confusion at all levels but the FIH rule makers have been driven by the desire to make the game better to play and better to watch, and in fairness many of the innovations have hit those buttons and enhanced the experience for all.

Has any game undergone so much evolution in the last 30 years? In my hockey lifetime I have witnessed great change. The switch to artificial grass has been the most obvious and that turf change has resulted in new skills which deserve new rule interpretations.

When I started out, hockey had a three man offside rule, which then became two and then no offside rule at all. Concerns about the effects this would have on the playing of the game have proved largely unfounded. We had roll-ins from the sidelines which were replaced by push ins and then hit-ins ahead of the self pass. We even had hand stopped long corners with any resulting shots allowed at any height! We survived!

The old ‘sticks’ rule was abolished without ensuing carnage and of course hockey’s iconic bully off was swept away with few mourning it’s passing. So much as we might annually complain with the tinkering with the rules of the game that we love we must admit that many changes have benefited the pace and flow of the game and made for a more dynamic spectacle.

This got me thinking. While my love affair with hockey is deep seated and forever I have always had football as ‘my bit on the side’ and I am a lifelong closet Spurs fan now outed in this column! This affectation has me regularly watching football on the box and has led me to observing that there are many things in hockey that would, in my opinion, be of great benefit to the sport currently enjoying the mantle of ‘Our National Game’.

Take the temporary suspension in hockey, for example, and compare and contrast its application with football’s booking system. In soccer I see players routinely picking up a yellow card to break down play and to frustrate opponents and cheat fans.

After a number of these over a period of time they pick up a suspension – usually one match – in a game that has no relationship whatsoever to the game where the offenses have occurred.

Another player steps up from the squad to replace the suspended player meaning that the actual impact is close to zero. If a yellow card meant that a player had to be sin-binned for, say ten minutes, this would hit sides hard and before long coaches might make the point that such indiscretions were damaging the team and stamp it out.

Booked: Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen picks up a booking against Hull, but should yellow cards in football be replaced by sin-bins?

This immediate punishment would have a degree of natural justice about it and be of benefit to the team that had been wronged. I think that it would be both fairer and tidier.

Interchange is another area where I think that football could benefit as hockey clearly has and on a number of levels. How dispiriting must it be to go through the whole matchday routine and travel to stand on the touchline waiting for a call that never comes?

What harm does it do to a youngster to be withdrawn by a coach for failing to live up to expectations? How much better would it be if a coach could ‘spell’ players recognising the different phases of the game or removing a player to reinforce a key point before allowing him to return to the fray to demonstrate that the point has been taken on board?

At the elite end of the sport in England teams have highly skilled and paid squads servicing the first team. Young English talent often can’t get a regular start in the line-up and are often reduced to waiting for an injury or a cursory few minutes to see out time.

Interchange could change that landscape and, with some creative thinking, could benefit a club’s academy players. The spectators would see more players and their ‘star turns’ might also benefit from brief spells on the bench to recharge and refresh rather than going missing for periods as now is often the case. With interchange less can sometimes mean more.

Hockey is relatively new into the ‘self pass’ and I must say that I was initially a sceptic . That scepticism only lasted until I had seen it played out at a good level when its obvious advantages were fully demonstrated.

Again I believe that football could be spiced up if the players were allowed to continue on a run without the need to play the ball to a teammate and certainly would benefit from the banishment of the time consuming rigmarole of the referee marking where the kick will be taken from, pacing out the ten yards and then, with another squirt of the shaving foam, where the wall is allowed to stand.

I reckon that allowing the ‘attacking’ team to simply get on with it if it is in their interests to do so, would be an interesting move and would soon do away with the obligatory whinging to the referee about the award in the first play.

Hockey has changed. Can football?

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