It is difficult to keep track of where more trials are prescribed these days: in the courts of the Old Bailey, the I’m A Celebrity jungle, or in the IFAB corridors of power.
The latest from the latter - that’s the International Football Association Board, the body in charge of setting and tweaking the game’s laws - is set to bring the experimentation with sin bins or ‘temporary dismissals’ (the moniker which appears to have, frustratingly, beaten ‘the naughty step’ to the scheme’s official billing) to the professional game.
In amateur football, 10-minute stints on the sideline are no longer a novel proposition, having been introduced to tackle dissent at grassroots level right up to Step 5 of the men’s pyramid, and Tier 3 of the women’s, back in 2019, after a(nother) previous FA trial brought a 38 per cent reduction.
“It just makes you think as a player about how you’re going to approach it and communicate with the referee,” says Tom Boddy, of Crowborough Athletic in the Southern Combination Premier Division.
“[A sin bin] doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s a serious disadvantage to you in the game. Team-mates will look at you in the sin bin thinking: ‘What the hell are you doing? Just zip it because otherwise you’re killing us for those 10 minutes’.”
Sam Behr is coach of Wimbledon Casuals, reigning champions of the Surrey County Premier League, and says he, too, has tailored his managerial approach.
“I definitely now, more than ever, say to my players before a game to play to the referee - if we know that he’s harsh, or he’s card-happy, don’t say anything to him, don’t argue decisions,” he says.
“Before, even a yellow card [for dissent] didn’t really do much because we never really see many second yellows given out at our level. Whereas now, the risk of a sin bin can have a material impact on the game.”
Among referees, the scheme has been broadly popular, with 84 per cent of officials supporting its expansion following the initial pilot period.
"Team-mates will look at you in the sin bin thinking: ‘What the hell are you doing?':
Tom Boddy of Crowborough Athletic
Boddy believes that a positive cycle of sorts may be forged, whereby better treatment of referees encourages more people to take up or stick with the job, thus raising standards and giving players less to complain about in the first place.
“There needs to be that respect shown to referees,” he says. “The quality at our level is pretty poor but we’re running low on referees and I don’t know how long it’s going to be before we’re going to be completely short and we don’t have matches refereed.”
Unsurprisingly, though, implementation has not been universally smooth and the major gripe among players and managers alike is of a lack of consistency, an area sure to become a focus should sin bins ever reach the elite.
“You probably only see it used every 10 or 12 games,” says Joe Kelly, of West Wickham in the Souther Amateur League. “It’s inconsistently applied depending on the referee and even within a game it can be inconsistently used.
"I got done once for literally shouting ‘No!’ after a foul went against me. Then I’ve heard other people give some expletive-laden protests and not go.”
Often, Kelly says, referees only use the sin-bin option when dissent is so foul that, by the letter of the law, it ought to warrant a red card for abusive language anyway.
“There have been a lot of instances where blatant dissent isn’t punished,” Behr agrees. “If they can educate referees to make sure that what warrants a sin bin is clearly defined and then also communicate that to coaches and players, then I think it’ll be a better system.”
There have been other issues, too, some of which pose serious questions about whether temporary dismissals can work in the professional game.
The risk of injury is heightened when players are forced to stop and restart, for instance, while playing with 10 men encourages time-wasting, an area on which the Premier League are trying to crack down.
“[Teams] basically play out the sin bin as if they’re playing out the last 10 minutes of a game when you’re 1-0 up,” Boddy says of his experience. “The gamesmanship of trying to ride it out is definitely evident.”
"Teams basically play out the sin bin as if they’re playing out the last 10 minutes of a game when you’re 1-0 up"
Tom Boddy of Crowborough Athletic
In-game consequence is the deterrent that, in theory, makes sin bins effective, but some question whether its impact on results might stretch too far, particularly where yellow cards for dissent deliver a double whammy of sorts.
“We had a title-decider game last year where we had to play for 10 minutes with nine men,” Kelly explains. “We’d just had a red card and then someone else got sin-binned for protesting.”
Whatever the fair principle behind the punishment, in the top-flight, where even with VAR referees have made a string of major errors this season, sin-binning players for complaints about decisions later accepted to be wrong would only serve to amplify controversy.
Several wrinkles to iron out, then, and no wonder another trial is on the cards.