The latest edition of Ref Review looks at the incident from the first leg of the Ladbrokes Premiership play-off semi-final between Hibs and Falkirk, where David McCracken clearly handled the ball inside the box but no penalty was given.
If you’ve read any of our previous Ref Review articles (links available at the bottom) you know we tend to stick up for officials. Often fans and pundits are too quick to condemn whistlers and sometimes don’t even know or understand the rules of the game properly before sounding off. We try to restore balance by, at the very least, helping you to understand why a referee has come to a decision, even if it has been the wrong one. In this instance, we’ll get to why someone could argue that McCracken’s handball was not worthy of a foul later on, but it has to be said that Alan Muir’s failure to give the right decision was part of his wider performance at Easter Road. He was weak, indecisive and looked like he’d turned up at the game with the mindset to try his hardest not to give any major decisions.
He set the tone early in his regard with his failure to book both Craig Sibbald or Anthony Stokes when each committed late challenges, and continued down this path for the rest of the game. The first big call of the night came when John Baird burst through from a Lee Miller knockdown and Lewis Stevenson clipped him on the edge of the penalty area. While it was not a red card - David Gray was close enough to provide cover - it was definitely a foul and Muir froze.
On to the penalty call. Often a referee’s position can provide the easiest explanation for why a decision has been missed, but not on this occasion. The ref is well positioned as play builds up and sprints closer after the ball gets played through. There is no issue at all with his view - he’s only about 10 yards away, has a clear sightline and has slowed down enough that his speed is not an issue.
McCracken makes an excellent challenge initially and as he’s scrambling to stand up, his hand rolls over the top of the football before he clears. After the game, former Hibs captain Stuart Lovell stated the opinion that it wasn’t a penalty because McCracken wasn’t looking down at the ball when he touched it, therefore it couldn’t have been deliberate. There is a case to be made that McCracken didn’t know where the ball was and was just putting his hand down to get back up. In today’s game, he has to be showing some sort of intent to handle the ball and, if you think logically about it, there was very little reason for him to do so. There is no imminent danger from any Hibs player - John McGinn is off balance and Liam Henderson is too far away. The risk of giving away a penalty by handling is much bigger than the risk of conceding if he doesn’t.
However, footballers, and people in general, cannot always think logically, especially when they are put under pressure. Also, you don’t have to be looking at the ball to know it’s there and under the circumstances it’s unlikely McCracken thought the ball was anywhere else.
For those reasons, it’s probable that it was not an accidental handball. The defender reacts instinctively because the ball is right there in front of him and is beginning to roll away. It should have been a penalty.
Whether any of that went through Muir’s mind, only he will know. Judging by the rest of his display, it’s likely he just froze and then doubted himself. None of the other officials had any chance of seeing it, so it was all on him.
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• Craig Anderson is a former fully qualified referee. He is also the man behind SPLStats on Twitter.