By Tim Wheal
Last Updated: 01/01/70 1:00am
David Elleray's judgment in dismissing Gary Doherty and Gus Poyet in last night's clash between Everton and Tottenham, while Mauricio Tarrico's widely criticised challenge on Thomas Gravesen went unpunished, has been the cause of some debate.
The pitch is perhaps more fervent this time round, though, given that Elleray is one of the 24 'elite' officials newly awarded professional status to oversee Premiership matches.
And with Middlesbrough declaring their intent to appeal against Ugo Ehiogu's sending off after their match against Arsenal, the focus is firmly on the men in black as the campaign gets underway.
Opta's stats show that the first 11 matches of the 2001-02 season have seen more action from officials than in recent campaigns. A total of 396 fouls, 43 yellow cards and five dismissals have been awarded up to and including Monday night's Everton-Spurs clash.
This is significantly higher than 1999-00, when in the corresponding timeframe there were nearly 100 fewer fouls blown up for and only two dismissals. And even last season's explosive start - notably when the Arsenal-Liverpool clash at Highbury saw three players sent off - has been eclipsed, with five more yellow cards and nearly 50 more illegal challenges this season compared to last.
Moreover, five spot-kicks have been awarded even at this early stage of the campaign. This is more than in the opening two fixtures of any of the last three seasons and if the current rate were to continue there would be a staggering 164 penalties given this season - 96 more than last term.
It does not come as too much of a surprise to Opta that there have been so many cards brandished early on in the campaign, however. Recent history shows that there are generally more cards brandished in the early stages of Premiership campaigns than in the latter part of the season.
After the first four rounds of matches last term, for instance, there had been nine red cards and nine penalties awarded, an average of one every four games. This trend petered out significantly come the season's end, falling to roughly one in six matches for both spot-kicks and dismissals.
Similarly in 1999-2000, the first 11 weeks of the campaign saw 33 dismissals and 30 penalties, and there was increasing criticism around October of that season regarding the number of red cards shown in the league. The tallies subsequently dropped to less than half as many red cards and just 20 spot-kicks in the second 11-week period.
While many people have voiced their worries over the seemingly inflated number of dismissals in the opening matches, there is no need to be overly concerned for now.
The stats suggest that recently the trend has been for officials to take a sterner line earlier on in the season and that players and referees alike seem to come to grips with any newly introduced guidelines, finding a 'middle ground' as the season wears on. There is nothing to suggest that this will not be the case in 2001-02.