‘Take a card…’ – three puzzles from LFC’s sendings-off

Football relies very heavily on the assumption of independence and impartiality on the part of referees, wherever games are played and whoever is playing them. Abandon that, and we abandon the sport – hence the number of independent research projects examining their ability to make decisions based solely on the rules of the game. Each season, clubs play the same number of fixtures, home and away, against others in the same league, the only numerical imbalance being provided by domestic and international cup games. Changes to the rules of the game, or to instructions given to referees, should make no difference to the overall balance of dismissals. Instances of referees’ errors should also even themselves out, any incorrect issuing of a red card balancing out those offences missed at the time. VAR should now reduce both, but the record of a sending-off, even if later rescinded, is not expunged – it still stands, though the PL summary sheet is not always consistent in recording it as such. For example, the Norwich v Sheffield United incident on 8 December 2019, a red card for Canaries' Chris Basham downgraded to yellow by VAR, appears as a yellow. What might be cancelled, on appeal to the FA’s Independent Regulatory Commission, is the consequent match ban of the player.

No Red has been sent off more often than Steven Gerrard who was shown the red card seven times

Puzzle #1 Why did LFC’s red cards treble in the 1990s?
The following figures, for the number of LFC sendings-off in competitive matches during each decade, are extracted from data.
Decade Cards
1901-1910 2
1911-1920 0
1921-1930 4
1961-1970 5
1971-1980 7
Why were there so few LFC sendings-off before Bob Paisley’s time, and why did the numbers more than treble in the 1990s? I assumed that data from the pre-‘70s was defective, and that too few newspaper reports had survived (or not enough had yet been analysed), giving a false impression of how law-abiding players were (or how many referees had a blind eye) in those days. I also thought that the introduction of the red and yellow card system in 1976 might have made it easier for referees to demonstrate their authority on the pitch. It also seemed possible that the ‘2 yellows = red’ might have empowered referees to be less tolerant of persistent bad play. Finally, I guessed the big increase in the 1990s was probably due to greater pressures on players consequent upon the stats-mad Premier League era since 1992/93.

I was wrong on all counts.

The data from every other club I’ve approached, which make available the level of detail required, show the same pattern, indicating the rarity of sendings-off before the 1970s. Everton, for example, had twenty-eight sent off between 1889 and 1972, and twenty-seven between 2002 and 2008 alone.

DECADE Brighton
Man Utd
1900s 5
7 2 2 2
1910s 0
2 0
3 1
1920s 5
2 4
2 3
1930s 1
2 0
1940s 1
 1 0
 2 2
13 9
39 27
2000s 58
37 46
** incomplete

A study of the dismissals ten years before and after the introduction of the red and yellow card system does not support pinning the blame on that event but points rather to a gradual build-up of numbers from the mid-1960s. Even the viciousness of the infamous 1970 FA Cup replay between Leeds and Chelsea did not spark an immediate reaction from the footballing authorities. (Modern referees watching the video testify to the leniency of those times, as they would have sent off so many players as to render the game null and void, one later commentator suggesting that the ref seemed to need a death certificate before he’d send anyone off.)

It can easily be shown that the creation of the Premier League had little or no effect because the same increase is found in all four tiers of the English leagues. Furthermore, there was actually a relatively low number of dismissals issued during the first two years of the (still 22-club) Premiership, certainly at Arsenal, Liverpool and MUFC. (The figures for all red cards given during Premiership matches are in the Appendix.)

The 1976 ’2 yellows = red’ rule gave more definition to the earlier ‘persistent fouls’ which led to a sending-off. How many were sent off before 1976 is unknown, as ‘persistent fouls’ was a phrase more attributable to reporters, not directly to the refs themselves. We then had to wait seven years before a Liverpool player was sent off for two yellow cards (Craig Johnston at Upton Park for tackling Hammers’ favourite Billy Bonds on his 700th appearance). With the exception of four in 2001, Liverpool has had no more than two such dismissals in any one season since. They have contributed 29 towards the 96 LFC red cards issued since 1976, but once again we have to pinpoint the 1990s as the start of their common use.

How, then, should we explain the great increase in sendings-off in the 1990s? It post-dates the foundation of the Premier League, but pre-dates the change to professional status for referees. I can only think it must have been part of a concerted effort on the part of the FA to stop the growing abuse of referees by players which was becoming a national disgrace to the game. At the same time, the number of referees used by the Premier League was more than halved within a couple of years, from 46 in 1992/93 to about twenty a year for the remainder of the PL era. Only twelve of the original 46 PL referees remained by 1995/96, and all those who had not issued red cards had gone, replaced by the likes of Graham Poll who penalised ten in 1997/98 as well as in 2000/01 (including Gary McAllister, Didi Hamann and Danny Murphy). Poll and Atkinson have sent off more LFC players (6) than any other ref. According to PL data, 25 of the 46 referees who officiated during the 1992/93 season issued no red cards, but only one of the 19 officiating in 1995/96.

Puzzle #2 Why are LFC players given more red cards away from Anfield?

Of the 114 instances of red cards having been issued to LFC players since 1892, 36 were at Anfield, and 78 at away grounds. Surely referees don’t feel safer away from the Anfield crowd – or do they? If they do, surely not to that extent! Do our players behave themselves better at home? How far do different home and away tactics play a part? Are we more aggressive away, fighting against the hosts’ home bias?

Once again, surprisingly, a similar pattern is found in the records of other clubs. From 1900 to 2021, Watford players have been issued with 56 red cards at home, 94 when playing away. In the same period, MUFC have had 48 sent off at Old Trafford, but 107 away (including seven at Anfield).

I wondered if Arsenal’s current flirtation with red cards has produced a similar result, and, lo and behold, in the Premier League they have received 32 red cards at home, but 64 away from Highbury and the Emirates. Meanwhile, across Stanley Park, a very similar result is obtained for Premier League matches – 35 given against Everton at Goodison, but 62 when they are playing away from home.

32 64 1992-2021*
35 62 1992-2021*
Brighton 72 131 1900-2021
Man Utd
Man Utd 17   49  1992-2021*
West Ham
West Ham
(*PL games only)

In all cases investigated, therefore, the home team has been given at least the benefit of the doubt when only one player is being sent off, and the extra statistics have merely confirmed the trend, not solved the conundrum.

Why are these teams racking up as many as twice the number of red cards when they are not playing at home?

Common sense would suggest that offences serious enough to merit a red card would occur in roughly equal numbers to LFC players and opponents. Most clubs don’t appear to have the data available, but by going through all the Premier League’s summary reports, you can establish how far from the expected outcome an individual club has varied. Compare the home and away figures for the six clubs which have been in this league since its inception.

Ron Yeats sent off for the only time in his Liverpool career on 15 February 1964 in the fifth round of the FA Cup against Arsenal.

Arsenal at home: 32 v Visitors: 61
Arsenal away: 64 v Home teams: 47

Chelsea at home: 36 v Visitors: 47
Chelsea away: 49 v Home teams: 26

Everton at home: 35 v Visitors: 51
Everton away: 62 v Home teams: 35

Liverpool at home: 18 v Visitors 26
Liverpool away: 41 v Home teams: 30

Manchester United at home: 17 v Visitors: 42
Manchester United away: 52 v Home teams: 32

Spurs at home: 23 v Visitors: 51
Spurs away: 44 v Home teams: 27

In each case, the visitors have been issued with far more red cards than the clubs playing at home. Do these figures reveal real differences in the reaction of referees according to the venue of the game? If so, should there have been fewer issued away, or more at home? Alternatively, is it the inevitably changed mind-set of players when on away soil which is adversely affecting their play? I think the latter is much more likely. The overall totals above are almost equal – but three times as many LFC defenders are sent off playing away compared with Anfield. On the other hand, I’m unhappy with the theory that these six clubs in particular have to defend so vigorously when playing away from home that so many are sent off.

Puzzle #3 Why bother about red cards when the penalties are so slight?

‘When you give the red card away, the game changes,’ bemoaned Arteta, seeing yet another Arsenal sending-off during his watch. (Someone might remind him that he had been sent off playing for Everton against Liverpool and Arsenal!) Dismissing a player is supposed to have a double effect – to punish both the perpetrator, and in consequence the team he played for. (In many other sports, immediate substitutions are allowed. Rugby-style sin bins are allowed in FIFA’s rules of the game, but not permitted in games controlled by the FA.)

Bans for subsequent games have a scale of punishment depending on the severity of the offence. A one-match ban is given automatically for receiving two yellows in the same match, denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by a foul or handling the ball, and for every subsequent red card in the same season. Two-match bans are given for using offensive, insulting, or abusive language; three-match bans are available for serious foul play and violent conduct; and there is a six-match ban for spitting at an opponent.

In addition, FIFA can impose a longer ban. Suarez (who was otherwise never sent off while playing for Liverpool) had the standard 3-game ban increased to ten by the FA in 2013 for biting Ivanovic and got four months for biting Chiellini in the 2014 World Cup.

The most immediate effect must surely be during the match in which the red card was shown. Do red cards, or their timing, have any effect on games?

                     LFC were winning when Biscan was shown red against Marseille in 2004, and when Babel was sent off against Benfica in 2010; we lost both games.

                     LFC were losing when Milner was sent off at Selhurst Park (6/3/2016) but ‘Liverpool found another gear as the ten men began to play with a zest and freedom that had eluded them for the majority of the contest.’ We won, 2-1.

Which of these two different outcomes following a red card is normal? The answer is – neither. Ignoring the games for which there is no time known for the dismissal, and when two opposing players are sent off, the ninety-six remaining were analysed. In seventy-eight, the final result remained the same as when the LFC player was sent off. In a further six, we drew (or in one we won – the Milner case above) when we had been losing at the time of the dismissal. The most dangerous time to be issued with a red card is when we were drawing - we lost seven of the twenty-one.

The stats suggest that most are given when a team is winning or drawing, not when they are losing, which argues against the idea of red cards being the outcome of frustration.

Perhaps the consequences of a red for player and club are not perceived as serious enough to temper one’s own temper before it happens. After all, a one-match ban is no more serious than being a victim of rotation, and the FIFA fines (or ‘administration fees’) are so minute as to be unnoticed by a player’s bank manager. Fines imposed by the club are complicated and unpublicised.

There may be a ‘badge of honour’ attached to red cards which might be worth more than all the fines imposed. George Best merely enhanced his legendary status when he was sent off during the first day red cards were introduced. Funes Mori appeared to be quite proud of the fact that he trod on Origi’s ankle in 2016. Stevie G collected over twice as many (7) as any other LFC player including two against both Everton and MUFC, but did we see him as the villain of the piece when he was dismissed against the former after 18 minutes? Even the cool Rafa saw it as ‘passion’! In the ambiguously entitled Chapter 9 ‘Tackling a problem’ of his autobiography, Gerrard described how difficult he found it to master that passion which, of course, the fans loved.

Reina lost his composure against Newcastle on 1 April 2012


1. The one common theme involved in all dismissals is that the decision is taken by the referee, and there have been plenty of studies which have shown bias (albeit unconscious) towards successful teams, home teams, large stadia and volume of crowd noise. A new way to test the last proposition is thanks to Covid-19 which virtually removed it during the season 2020/21, and which can then be compared with 2018/19, the last full normal season.

In 2018/19 47 red cards were shown in the Premier League; in 20/21, that went up to 50.
In 2018/19 there were 1,150 yellow cards; in 20/21 the figure fell to 1,097.

In other words, the absence of crowds and noise made little or no difference to the card decisions of referees. The drop in total numbers of cards issued since 2010 predates Covid by some years. (See appendix)

2. Presentation of the red card data by decade masks one (to me, admirable) effect of the Klopp era – winning for the last five years the annual Premier League Fair Play award, issued for the lowest annual points count for cards issued – yellow (1), double yellow leading to red (3) and straight red (5). It raises the question of whether there is a correlation between that number and success on the pitch. If a team is being successful, would the number of cards issued be expected to fall, or does aggression correlate positively with good football results?

The difference between the number of red cards shown to clubs in seasons when they won the premier league (72) is only marginally different to the number given to clubs who came bottom in the last 29 years (74). Sheffield United had the same number (3) in their sharply contrasting seasons 2019 to 2021. However, a small sample comprising LFC’s 11 best placed and 10 worst placed league seasons during the Premier League era shows them given 2.2 and 3.9 red cards respectively per season. The Brighton results also show a decrease in red cards during their successful seasons.

3. In view of the possible punishment attached to a red card, for both player and team, the timing of the event raises some interesting questions. What is the most likely time to be sent off? A small minority of LFC players have been sent off in the first half, with the third 15-minute spell as a danger time zone. After the interval, the incidence of red cards increases with time, reaching a 33-card crescendo in the last ten minutes (accompanied by a fanfare of yellow cards during the 1990s until about 2006). What possesses a player to be sent off in the last minute of a game? Is it desperation causing erratic behaviour? Thirteen Liverpool players have been dismissed in the last minute of games, in nine of which we were losing, but in three we were ahead!

Perhaps it’s because, until about 2006, refs were surrounded by players at the final whistle (normally not to congratulate him for refereeing the game well). Second yellows, and therefore reds, often followed. The consequent clampdown is reflected in the total PL red card figures from that date.

Appendix Total red cards issued during Premier League games.

1992/93 - 33
1993/94 - 28
1994/95 - 67
1995/96 - 54
1996/97 - 44
1997/98 - 68
1998/99 - 72
1999/00 - 70
2000/01 - 64
2001/02 - 71
2002/03 - 75
2003/04 - 58
2004/05 - 60
2005/06 - 75
2006/07 - 51
2007/08 - 59
2008/09 - 63
2009/10 - 68
2010/11 - 65
2011/12 - 66
2012/13 - 52
2013/14 - 53
2014/15 - 71
2015/16 - 59
2016/17 - 41
2017/18 - 39
2018/19 - 47
2019/20 - 48
2020/21 - 50

Written by Colin Rogers for


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