Why are defenders allowed to '˜foul' attackers in the act of shooting?

Sunday's Betfred Cup final between Aberdeen and Celtic gave everyone watching a startling reminder of how dangerous football can be sometimes.

Gary Mackay-Steven clashes heads with Celtic's Dedryck Boyata, with both players suffering injuries. Picture: SNS
Gary Mackay-Steven clashes heads with Celtic's Dedryck Boyata, with both players suffering injuries. Picture: SNS

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With under seven minutes of the first-half remaining, Gary Mackay-Steven drifted on to the end of a cross from Shay Logan and diverted his header goalward. The effort was saved by Scott Bain, not that Mackay-Steven was aware of it. The Aberdeen star had been knocked unconscious by a late attempt from Celtic centre-back Dedryck Boyata to block the header. The Belgian came charging in, didn’t get the ball and got plenty of his opponent, so much so that Mackay-Steven had to be rushed to hospital.

In BT Sport’s coverage there was no suggestion that it could be a foul, a feeling backed up by the majority of fans watching on social media. But why is that?

Gary Mackay-Steven clashes heads with Celtic's Dedryck Boyata, with both players suffering injuries. Picture: SNS

Imagine Boyata had been late on Mackay-Steven, but instead of with his head it was with his feet. And instead of inside the box it was in the middle of the park. It would be a foul, right?

The Celtic player is not trying to injure his opponent, but that’s almost redundant. Fans and pundits often use this as an excuse to defend a player who’s just committed a foul, though it’s often more common with regards to aerial challenges. If we see two players running for the ball and one slides in on another, and doesn’t get the ball, we don’t try to claim there was no foul because his intentions were free of malice. So why should it be any different with a player’s head?

This is not an attempt to claim Aberdeen were robbed of a Betfred Cup final victory or an excuse to bash referee Andrew Dallas. Had this occurred at the other end of the park the same decision would have been reached. It’s a part of football refereeing culture. And it’s not limited to aerial contests.

Think about how many times you see it: a player has just pulled the trigger and is taken out by a defender; the ball flies wide or into the goalkeeper’s arms and there’s no repercussion for the defender committing the foul.

You’ll typically hear it excused with ‘ach well, he got his shot away, the ball is gone’, meaning it’s no longer in play and therefore no foul can take place. But we don’t judge fouls on this merit in the middle of the park. If a player knocks a pass directly out of play for a throw-in and is knocked to the ground a split-second after doing so, the referee will always give a foul.

For the most part, officials don’t want to give penalties. Football is a low scoring game and any whistler worth his salt will know that pointing to the spot can dramatically alter the course of a match. They shouldn’t, and often don’t, want to be the centre of attention and the reason a game has swung one way or another.

Unfortunately for the men in black looking to stay out of the limelight, Fifa rules have been tightened over the last 20 years in order to protect attacking players by handing out greater punishments for defenders who, in previous decades, would have escaped with little more than a talking to, such as tackles from behind, lunging in with two feet, studs off the ground etc. It is therefore strange that this particular phenomenon is still common.

These are the moments where footballers are at their most vulnerable. They’re concentrating on getting the shot on target. It’s the chance to score a goal, nothing else matters. Therefore they’re often defenceless, as Mackay-Steven was in this case. He had no idea Boyata’s cranium was arriving in his direction and his obliviousness cost him a chance to win the Betfred Cup final.

It also speaks to football’s relationship with the danger of head injuries. A player lunging in with his feet after a shot is taken will generally escape punishment, but they’re still whistled more often than those leading with their head. Even in the centre circle you’ll see defenders getting away with heading the back of a striker’s head. It occurred in the recent Scotland women’s international against the USA, where America’s Julie Ertz tried to play the ball by heading through the back of Erin Cuthbert’s skull. A foul wasn’t even given.

Though accidental, part of the responsibility of a footballer while on the field is to consider the safety of those he or she is coming into contact with, even if they’re desperately trying to stop a goal. Perhaps it’s up to the authorities to give them a reminder of that.