New rules and fancies

I have this old friend, Tony, who is a dead keen Arsenal fan, wears his red woolly hat to every game, has two season tickets and often, if one of his family can't make it, lets me have a ticket, which is kind.

I have known him, oh, for 40 years. He lived opposite and seemed to work so hard, lights on in his study all night. At football games, I'm effing and blinding - "What a tosser! Gerrhimoff!" - while Tony very quietly points out flaws, weaknesses and discrepancies in the laws of football. All in a very legalistic, analytical, judgemental way, which is only fitting, as he is a retired circuit judge, Anthony Hallgarten, QC.

Here are some of his recent aperçus, as whispered in my ear at the Emirates. Will any of them make it into the football statute book in 2011?

1 Ref to indicate to goalie from which side he is to take a goal kick. We were watching Arsenal play Birmingham at the time and their goalie was playing for time by going side to side, mucking around. So, good idea, Tony.

2 New penalty for time-wasting: a green card giving the other side the option of an extra 60 seconds at the end. Nah, too complicated. We've got enough cards already.

3 Assistant ref to position himself along the line of an offence to avoid stealing ground (meaning, cheating).

4 Amend the obstruction rule (or rather, apply it sensibly). It is an offence to "impede the progress of an opponent". It should therefore be an offence for a player to screen the ball with no intention of playing it. This represents a particularly ugly and frustrating form of time-wasting. Hmm, not sure about that. Shielding the ball is part of the game.

5 Game to continue up to 45/90 minutes but play ends only if there's a throw-in or goal kick. Again, good thinking. It would keep it neat. It is annoying when the ref blows for time in the middle of a half-decent move.

6 Offsides. The benefit of the doubt should always be in favour of the attacker. The assistant referee should flag only if he's sure the attacker is in an offside position and seeking to interfere with play or gain an advantage. Applying the benefit of the doubt in this way would limit the use of ugly offside traps (we are so used to them that we see nothing wrong in defenders, faced with an attack, moving in the wrong direction).

7 Throw-ins always to be taken by the player closest to the ball. I can see the thinking - to reduce time-wasting - but it's a dopey idea. And it would do Rory Delap out of a job.

8 Couldn't the FA computer alternate dates? For example, if the season begins with a home game one year, the team would
be away the following year. Likewise, Boxing Day. It would allow fans to plan their holidays rather better but it wouldn't always work, because it would need to be adjusted for newly promoted teams.

9 Instead of penalty shoot-outs, reduce teams to nine players - and then, after 105 minutes, to seven. That should produce a result! Could be chaotic but fun.

Anyway, friends, feel free to suggest rule changes of your own. I will be the judge.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.