How English football came to love and curse the red card

Red card
Image caption Red cards were first introduced to the global game in 1970

When Saturday comes, it brings with it goals, shock results and a sprinkling of the dreaded yellow and red cards.

But while the goals and upsets have been occurring in the Football League for 125 years, the same cannot be said for the handing out of cards.

They made their debut in the English game in 1976, and the first player to receive a red one was Blackburn Rovers winger Dave Wagstaffe.

The former Wolves midfielder, who died this week aged 70, was given his marching orders in a Division Two match at Leyton Orient on 2 October. Later that afternoon a certain George Best also saw red playing for Fulham at Southampton in the same division.

But where did the idea for the cards come from?

Traffic lights

The cards were shown after the Football League voluntarily adopted a system introduced to the game in the 1970 World Cup.

David Barber, from the Football Association, said the idea is credited to English referee Ken Aston from Ilford, London.

Image caption Winger Dave Wagstaffe left Wolves in 1976 for Blackburn Rovers

Mr Barber said: "He refereed the 1963 FA Cup Final and was in charge of the referees at the '66 World Cup, during which there was confusion over [Argentina's] Antonio Rattin's dismissal against England.

"Had he actually been sent off?"

The player had indeed been given his marching orders, for reasons that were about as unclear as the indication of the dismissal itself.

Mr Aston had to help persuade Argentina's captain to leave the field of play.

It was while the referee was driving along Kensington High Street that he had the idea of introducing yellow and red cards in a bid to overcome language barriers and give a clear indication to players and supporters alike.

He was stopped at traffic lights when it dawned on him that yellow could be for a caution, a warning to a player to take it easy. And red would simply mean stop - your game is over.

The card system was trialled at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and they were introduced into European club games at some point afterwards.

Football violence

Some six years later they made their way into the English game where they were used in the domestic game for less than five years initially.

Tony Brown, from SoccerData, explained why two red cards were shown on the day they were introduced.

"Wagstaffe was the first to receive a red, for arguing with the ref [after 36 mins]," Mr Brown said.

"George Best received a red for foul language in the 67th minute."

Image caption The inspiration for the cards came from colours of the traffic light

He added: "In 1980, there was concern over violence on and off the pitch.

"The FA, not the League, thought that 'demonstrative referees' were part of the problem, and decided to do away with red cards."

The decision was ratified by the FA Council in January 1981 and two of the last red cards, for the time being, were shown to David Hodgson and Nicky Reid in a game between Manchester City and Middlesbrough.

But Mr Brown said that by 1987 "the International Board, the rule-making body of the international game, said that England was out of step and should reintroduce cards for the 1987-88 season".

Luton Town forward Mick Harford had the dubious honour of being shown the first red card in a league match following their reintroduction. The Hatter walked just four minutes into the opening day defeat at Derby County in Division One on 15 August 1987.

Over 9,000 have followed in domestic matches and European games involving English teams, according to the English National Football Archive.

The National Football Museum said the issuing of cards became part of the FA's laws of the game in 1992.

And while showing red and yellow helps make referees' decisions clear most of the time, the debate over whether they should or should not have been issued rumbles on among the tales of goals and results up and down the country.

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