Another weekend and another batch of contentious refereeing decisions for supporters to debate or denigrate up and down the country.
The latest edition of Slam The Man In Black featured a couple of high profile personalities making guest appearances: Chris Sutton and Ronny Deila. Only this time, instead of the Celtic manager and former club striker singing from the same hymn sheet, they put forward contrasting views of the red card issued to Dedryck Boyata on Friday night.
The Hoops defender was given his marching orders for a foul on Carlton Morris. Sutton was insistent throughout commentary that referee Craig Thomson had got it wrong, and then incredulous when Deila said post-match that he thought it was the correct decision. The Celtic boss has since changed his tune, saying he needed to see it from numerous angles before deciding that Boyata had made a fair challenge, though he still refused to throw the match official under the bus in the same manner Sutton was so readily willing to do.
Deila wasn’t the only one to disagree with Sutton. Fellow BT Sport pundit Stephen Craigan opinioned that he thought it was a foul. Again, in this instance, Sutton couldn’t believe a contrary opinion existed, citing Boyata’s touch on the ball before taking down Morris. And if Boyata played the ball before he played the man, there’s no way it should have been a foul, right? Wrong.
To make sense of this weekend’s controversy I spoke to a friend of mine, Craig Anderson. Craig, you may know, is Mr SPLStats on Twitter. If you’re unfamiliar with the account you’ll likely be with some of his statistics, which are often read out on BBC Sportsound and shamelessly nicked by other publications. You may not, however, know he is a fully trained referee. Or, at least, he used to be up until five years ago. When discussing the weekend’s events he let me in on, what I can only reason to be, the biggest fallacy in football.
“Law 12 is the law relating to “Fouls and Misconduct”. It doesn’t make any direct reference to playing the ball,” said Anderson, much to my own Sutton-esque incredulity. “The laws state that a direct free-kick should be given if a player “trips, kicks, jumps at, charges, strikes, pushes or tackles” an opponent in a manner which, in the opinion of the referee, is “careless, reckless or uses excessive force”. Some clarification is given for each of these terms, but none of them refer to the ball.”
I was dumbstruck. This was a “rule” I thought had existed since I first started watching the game. If you play the ball first then it’s not a foul. That “rule” became a little more ambiguous in recent seasons with greater emphasis being placed on recklessness and threat of endangering an opponent, but in my mind an orthodox slide tackle was a perfectly acceptable challenge as long as ball was struck before man. This is not, and has never been, necessarily the case.
So why does everyone think that playing the ball automatically constitutes a clean tackle? It’s probably because, in most instances, it still is. It comes down to interpretation. Tackling in football is about dispossessing an opponent. If that dispossession is done in a manner which is “careless, reckless or uses excessive force” then whether the ball is played before man doesn’t matter. We’ve become familiar with “reckless” and “excessive force” in recent years as a conscious effort throughout the sport has been made to cut down on dangerous tackles, but what about carelessness?
“A tackle is less likely to be considered “careless” by a referee if the defender achieves the desired effect (i.e. taking the ball from the opponent),” explained Anderson. “If a player takes the ball in a tackle, but then his follow through is particularly clumsy/careless, that can in some cases be construed as a foul. An example of a clumsy follow through would be a guy who leaves his trailing leg behind in a tackle, and raises it in such a way that an opponent is bound to trip over it.
“There are almost no challenges on a football pitch that are 100 per cent a foul, or 100 per cent not a foul. Most of them are 90-10, or 80-20, and that’s fine for a ref. But something that is 60-40, or 55-45 becomes difficult. They have to give decisions.”
Boyata’s red card wasn’t the only controversial moment at the top of the table. Aberdeen looked set to take full advantage of Celtic’s draw with a victory over St Johnstone. That was until Steven McLean gave an equally egregious decision in the eyes of Dons players and fans when he penalised Ryan Jack for a foul on Liam Craig, allowing the Saints midfielder to equalise from the penalty spot.
On the Boyata decision, Anderson said: “I don’t think it’s a foul. He gets across his man and gets a nice clean contact on the ball. The ball then ricochets back off Morris, which makes it look like he hasn’t got anything on it.”
On Jack’s foul: “I think it was a penalty. Jack caught Craig’s right leg before he got anywhere near the ball, and it was enough to be considered a “trip”.”
While I agreed with my qualified friend on the Boyata call, I had a different interpretation of Jack’s challenge, even though, ultimately, I also thought it should be a penalty. For me, Jack gets a toe on the ball before he goes through Craig. However, it’s such a negligible touch that Craig is still fully in possession of the football and, therefore, the follow through constitutes a foul. Am I right? Perhaps, but I’m certainly not wrong.
“We’re both watching the same footage, but we both see something different,” said Anderson. “Both of us have been watching football for 20+ years, so it would be churlish for either of us to claim some sort of superior knowledge to the other. If you think it’s careless, then you think it’s careless. Who am I to tell you what careless means to you?
“It’s certainly a challenge for referees. Every referee is different, and so in the same way that you or I would disagree on whether a particular challenge is a foul, so too do referees. You could sit Craig Thomson and Steven McLean down in front of a video of the same incident, and they might have completely different views of it. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that.”
If you’re confused or unsure by any of this, imagine what it’s like for a referee. Someone who has to compute all of what’s been mentioned before giving a decision, all within the space of two seconds.
The abuse dished out to match officials is, simply, disgraceful. It is an essential job in football and yet they are treated as if they are a scourge on the sport. Changing the attitude of fans is one thing. Supporters are always going to have [insert club colours] tinted-specs on when it comes to fouls, so heightened knowledge of the potential interpretations may not make much of a difference – after all, fans will just interpret them in accordance with their own partisanship. However, those whose job it is to analyse the game should probably have a better grasp of what referees have to take into consideration on any decision, and how few times they are objectively wrong in giving a free-kick, red card, penalty, whatever.
“That’s the biggest problem with TV punditry,” argues Anderson. “They feel the need to describe everything in absolutes. Perhaps they feel that if they don’t come down strongly on one side or the other, then they will look weak or uninformed. But it’s perfectly fine to look at a decision and say “I think it was a foul, but I can see where you are coming from”. But that doesn’t really happen.
“I think pundits and journalists should be heavily encouraged by their employers and the SFA to take a quick half-day course on the laws of the game. That would help them to explain things with a bit more authority.”
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