Michael Oliver was right. Gianluigi Buffon was wrong. We must be clear about that.

I have rarely seen such a remarkable European tie as this year’s European Cup quarter-final (NB: “leagues” don’t have “quarter finals”) between Real Madrid and Juventus. These were two exceptionally talented teams, superbly trained, clashing on one of the game’s largest stages. A fine early team goal, some daft messages, a candidate for goal of the decade, an epic comeback and then a gripping finale – it really did have everything.

However, it also left a hint of a sour taste. Right at the end of the tie, English referee Michael Oliver made not just the right, but also an extremely courageous decision to award the decisive penalty. For this, he was surrounded and shoved by angry defenders including Gianluigi Buffon, who thus saw red in his final European match. Unfortunately Mr Buffon, a fine ambassador for the game generally, then further let himself down by suggesting in no uncertain terms that Mr Oliver should not be a referee.

Mr Buffon’s logic was rather curious. Essentially, Mr Oliver should not have awarded the penalty not because a foul had not been committed, but because it deprived us of the drama (presumably of Mr Buffon’s own team completing the comeback in extra-time). This is ludicrous – and it takes someone in authority to point out it is ludicrous. It is dangerously ludicrous, in fact.

That it is dangerously ludicrous was demonstrated on the very day of the second leg by a story from the English Midlands of an amateur referee having to withdraw his (effectively voluntary) service to the game because he had been physically assaulted for the second time. This is extremely serious.

There remains within the game of football a culture which tolerates blistering attacks on the referees – even when these are in error. Here is the thing – if someone with the high reputation of Gianluigi Buffon is entitled to yell at a referee from inches away and to say he should be in the stand with his family instead, then others will inevitably take this as licence to engage in their own anti-referee activities. We know this can approach and sometimes exceed the boundary between verbal abuse (bad enough) and outright physical assault.

Mr Buffon should now use his status as a soon-to-be-retired ambassador for the game to apologise profusely for his terminology and accept the nonsense of his argument. In fact, what happened was that the world’s greatest player was allowed a free header at the far post, from which a situation arose where the best way to stop a goal was to bundle over that player’s team mate by both pushing and kicking him at the same time. Contrary to what the “experts” in the studio may have said, a clearer penalty award you will rarely see – and Mr Buffon should say so, publicly, in retrospect, while expressing sorrow directly to Mr Oliver.

If Mr Buffon cannot manage this, UEFA or even FIFA should consider stepping in. It is long since time that the game’s authorities stood up for their officials. Mr Oliver didn’t get to do a press conference where he could have analysed Juventus’ dodgy defending in the last few minutes, but somehow Juventus get to accuse him (wrongly, as it turns out) of dodgy officiating. It is plainly unacceptable, and it then ripples down the game until a referee is forced to quit in an amateur league in England because of the abuse and assaults he completely unjustifiably receives.

To be clear, Mr Buffon’s reaction was unacceptable even if Mr Oliver had been wrong. But Mr Oliver also was clearly not wrong. So what will it take for the game’s authorities to react? How many referees have to quit at amateur level, or retire at Premier League or La Liga level, before it is recognised fundamentally that the game is nothing without its officials?

Mr Buffon was wrong. Mr Oliver was right. It is essential we all recognise it openly.


The peculiar case of “text” as a past tense

When I wrote last week that originally all verbs in Germanic languages (such as English) formed their past forms by changing their root vowel (e.g. sing-sang-sung) and that the now productive (i.e. perceived to be regular) means of doing so by adding a dental suffix (-t or, more typically in Modern English, –ed), I would suggest that this was news to most readers.

At least consciously.

Yet every reader, in fact, knew this. As speakers of a Germanic language we are in fact linguistically programmed to know that the “dental suffix” ending marks the past. As a result, through time, it has become increasingly the case that it does (as noted last week, we now say helped not halp/holpen).

In fact, our pre-programmed determination to end past forms with a dental suffix overrides our preference for regularisation itself. There is a peculiar 21st century example of this.

The verb “to text” has emerged only in the past generation. It would have appeared senseless to anyone before the mid-90s that “text” could be anything other than a noun.

However, here is a funny thing: in casual speech, the verb “to text” is irregular in the past.

The regular past of text would of course be texted. Yet just listen out for it the next time you hear it, or even consider what you yourself say, and you will note that the past form (at least in casual speech) is in fact text. People actually say ‘I text her yesterday’ not ‘I texted her yesterday’.

We see this also with verbs such as “to bet”. What has happened is that our innate tendency towards ending a past with a dental suffix (in this case –t) has overridden our preference for outright regular past formation.

So, it turns out we know rather more about our linguistic heritage than we thought – even when using the most 21st century vocabulary!

Stormont: the options now

Clearly, two weeks ago, the DUP and Sinn Fein reached an outlined Agreement which would have enabled the appointment of a First Minister and deputy First Minister and then of eight Executive Ministers. In turn, this would have allowed restoration of the Assembly in plenary and in committee.

This first paragraph alone needs to be understood to enable us to grasp, structurally at least, what the options are now. The key point is this: the Assembly exists. The Assembly was correctly elected in March 2017, and it continues to operate – with its constituency offices, all-party groups, representative functions and so on.

As noted before, Northern Ireland has three specific peculiarities in its system which are too often overlooked by correspondents and commentators:

  • it requires an Executive to be appointed before its Legislature (the Assembly) may sit in plenary and committee (and thus before it can legislate and scrutinise);
  • it requires two specific parties to lead its Executive regardless of the election result otherwise; and
  • it removes its Ministers on election day.

Each of these is unique. In every other system (for example, up until a few days ago in Germany or for most of the past year in the Netherlands), a Legislative Assembly can sit and even legislate without an Executive in place; parties merely need to show they have the support, even implicitly, of a majority of that Assembly (even in systems, such as Belgium’s, which require a degree of power-sharing); and Ministers remain in place until they are specifically replaced.

Interestingly, the draft agreement did consider the latter. It suggests that an Executive would formally remain in place for up to six weeks after an election (while an attempt was made to form another), and that Ministers would remain in place for a further twelve after that (in an interim or “caretaker” capacity, as is common elsewhere) after which another election would take place. There has been some indication that the UK Government may proceed to legislate for this, and that would be wise as it would remove one of the unique problems and would at least enable decisions to be made in the event of a similar breakdown in future.

It would also help with the first point, as retaining an Executive through an election would enable an Assembly to sit and conceivably even legislate, even before a new Executive was agreed. That is now an area of discussion in the media and it is indeed where the UK Government needs to give some focus. Is it really wise to block MLAs from doing at least the scrutiny aspect of their job merely because two particular parties cannot agree (as is necessary because of the middle point) to form an Executive? Indeed, is there really any reason MLAs should be impeded from doing the legislative aspect of their role? The UK Government could, if it were legislating already to reform the timescale around Executive formation, continue to allow the Assembly to operate, at very least in Committee (primarily for scrutiny) and potentially even in plenary (primarily for legislation). There would be several advantages at least to doing the former – MLAs would be back scrutinising policy and thus could themselves be seen to be doing their job (and assessed on it) by the public; civil servants would feel more content to pursue certain policies given that they would be subject to democratic and local oversight in so doing; and indeed intra-party relationships could be built up to enable talks to restore the Executive to be carried out on a broader basis (so that no MLAs again feel they are being bounced into an agreement they have not even seen). Restoring a legislative function to the Assembly may be for later down the track, but would enable issues such as Health Reform and same-sex marriage to be pursued if that were the will of the democratically elected legislature. (This of course raises the issue of the Petition of Concern – is there any reason the review agreed to by the two main parties to be concluded in June 2018 should not in fact proceed?)

The middle point is of course trickier. How do you ensure genuine cross-community power-sharing? In practice, St Andrews made things worse, not better, but there is little prospect of the UK (or indeed Irish) Government intervening here while so caught up on other matters. That is, unfortunately, a problem we are left with and it is hard to see how it will be solved by those who have no electoral motivation for solving it – but there are, at least, other things we could be doing in the meantime.

Irregular verbs in English

‘There must be a Japanese word for the feeling you have when you see someone write “has went”‘, I once tweeted. As I wrote on this blog some years ago, it is of course a lost battle; a generation or so from now, “has went” (rather than the currently Standard “has gone”) will be universally accepted.

One potentially interesting aspect of this is that went is a “suppletive”. Suppletives are words used as part of a paradigm (e.g. a past form of a present; thus went for go) which have no historical relation. Other examples in English include good – better and some parts of to be (which varies wildly through the paradigm across am and are through been to was and were). What generally has happened is that a word which originally had a restrictive term has come to be more generally used. Went was in fact originally the past form of wend (cf. sent of send); go (actually gan as it was originally, and still is in non-standard speech in Northumbria) had another suppletive past form eode (which combined with a suffix also gave ful-eode, now followed; the present form follow is in fact a regularised back formation versus the original fulgan, cf. German folgen). Over time went took over as the past form of what was now go, but the non-suppletive past participle form gone remains (at least in careful, standard usage).

Most neighbouring languages do distinguish between a past form (sometimes known as a “preterite”) and a part participle. French has parlai/-as/-a etc versus parlé(es); German has plauderte(-st/-n) versus plaudert; Spanish has hablé/-aste/-ó versus hablado; and so on. With regular verbs, however, English no longer does – talked is both a past form (used throughout the paradigm – I talked, you talked, it talked…) and past participle (I have talked).

However, these regular verbs are in fact an innovation in Germanic languages. Originally, all verbs formed their past (and occasionally other forms) by way of ablaut – essentially, amending the root vowel. Still around 150-200 verbs in English (and other Germanic languages such as German) do it this way: sing-sang-sung, break-broke-broken, come-came-come and so on. However, as even those examples show, there has been a tendency towards regularisation (broke-broken was, until even Shakespeare’s era, brake-broken as is still evident in the Modern German brechen-brach-gebrochen; cf. also Modern English swing-swung-swung [not/no longer swang]).

It was only over time that Germanic languages developed an alternative past formation by way of a dental suffix (basically either -t or –d) which became productive (i.e. the normal way of doing it) to the extent that now it is the way with almost all verbs. Many verbs which now do it that way were once not (help-helped was at the time of the King James Bible an innovation from help-halp-holpen, cf. again modern German helfen-half-geholfen).

The pressure towards regularisation, despite the fact the language is standardised, is what brings about such forms as “he has came“, “it is broke“, “she has rang” (or indeed “she rung“) or “I have went“. It also nudges some verbs into the regular category, or just causes outright confusion (e.g. regular transitive lay-laid-laid versus irregular intransitive lie-lay-lain) or comes to separate words completely (e.g. set versus sit). Since the invention of the printing press, this tendency has slowed down remarkably, but is still evident.

In the end, regularisation in informal speech creeping into the standard language over generations is a forewent conclusion… (ahem, actually gone will remain as an adjective and in set phrases, such as “bygone” or “days long gone” but as a participle it will be “gone” soon enough…).

Away goals, English teams – and how the media get it wrong

The football media in the UK are of course prone to wild exaggeration and crazed build-ups. This is never more apparent than in the run-up to big European ties.

Two common errors apply to the usefulness of “away goals” and to the scale of British teams’ feats. A recent tie between Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur demonstrated both.

To be clear, away goals can be valuable. In my Arsenal supporting career, which is into its 37th year, bizarrely I have suffered several defeats on away goals (even domestically in one League Cup semi) and never experienced a win by that route. So they are not irrelevant, as I know from bitter experience!

However, the value placed on them is overstated. To make an obvious point, away goals only matter if the aggregate score is level. In the vast majority of cases – well over 80% – it isn’t. To show just how ludicrous the commentary can be, we should also emphasise for example that an away team winning without conceding cannot win the tie away goals. How often do you hear that any away goal is “crucial”; in fact, if the home side does not score, an away goal literally cannot be crucial (to use both the word “literally” and the word “crucial” as per their dictionary definition!)

Added to this is the constant vast overstatement of British teams’ performances. After the first leg of the recent tie, the BBC even offered an article suggesting that Tottenham Hotspur’s comeback to draw 2-2 was “the greatest comeback ever”. To leave quite aside Manchester United actually coming from two down to win 3-2 at Juventus in the 1999 semi or the obvious choice of Liverpool’s miracle in Istanbul six years later, this was a completely ludicrous proposition anyway since the tie was not over. Indeed, surely it would be preposterous to suggest Juventus’ comeback to win the tie (on aggregate, not away goals) was “the greatest comeback ever”?!

In the end, for all the media frenzy, the real expertise was provided afterwards by Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini, who said he never doubted his team would edge through because the opponents were very good but lacked the guile and experience at this level. Why did no one say that beforehand?

“Between you and I” and other horrors…

It was one of a number of papers exchanged between Michelle O’Neill and I“, noted Arlene Foster earlier this week.

She is not having a good run. Not only is it obvious that her party leadership had an agreement to restore devolution and then couldn’t provide the leadership to make the easy sell, but she then got mocked for her use of English. It should, of course, be “between Michelle O’Neill and me“.

This is a poor error – and it is an outright error, not just a non-standard variation – yet I see it all the time. What is going on here?

Fundamentally, the rules around personal pronouns are quite simple in English. “Direct” forms are used when they are the subject of a clause (thus “I, he, she, we, they“) and “oblique” forms are used when they are an object (“me, him, her, us, them”) – the form you is now used for both. Thus it would be “Michelle and I saw the draft” [subject]; but “Other negotiators joined Michelle and me“, “They showed Michelle and me the text” and  “There was an agreement between Michelle and me” [direct object, indirect object and pronoun object respectively – but it does not matter, any object takes the same form].

So how could anyone get this wrong?

Firstly, there is the issue of hyper-correction of a common dialectal (non-standard) rule. In many dialects of English, and in Scots, the grammatical rule is in fact that the direct form is only used if the pronoun is the subject and stands alone. Thus it is “I saw the draft” but, in many non-standard varieties, “Her and me saw the draft” (or indeed perhaps something like “Me and her seen the draft). There are some slight variations on this “rule” – other dialects require the pronouns to be removed from the verb, for example. Because this rule is so widespread in non-standard dialects, it is a prominent part of education in Standard English (whose rule, it must be said, is a lot simpler) that it should in writing and formal speech be “She and I saw the draft“. It is emphasised that the subject form is required, and indeed that to be polite the “I” should come second.

Secondly, we have the tendency in speech not just to distinguish between “direct/subject” and “oblique/object” but also between unstressed and stressed – when we stress a pronoun we tend to use the oblique form, e.g. “I didn’t see the draft, me“. This is quite common – French has a similar tendency (“Moi, je n’ai pas vu le document“), and Dutch has an entire separate set of unstressed person pronouns.

Both of these – the hyper-correction and the spoken tendency as well as the underlying grammar of some non-standard dialects – tempt us towards the oblique (object) forms over the direct (subject). Additionally, there is also the confusion around what happens after copulative verbs (verbs which do not take an object, most obviously “to be“); here, modern English tends towards the oblique form (“It’s me“, cf. French “C’est moi“), whereas the more typically Germanic “It is I” sounds archaic or even pompous (German actually has “Ich bin es” or “Das bin ich“, literally “I am it / That am I“). Indeed, this process has already led to the complete collapse of one direct/subject form, as the formerly uniquely oblique/object form “you” has come to take over from ye” entirely.

Nevertheless, the “rule” in Standard English is extraordinarily simple. As a subject of a verb, the direct (subject) form is used; as an object (of any type) of a verb or a pronoun, the oblique (object) form is used.

Between you and me, I suspect she did show her a draft…

Football refereeing versus hockey umpiring

Fed up with merely cheering on her daughter from the sidelines, my wife returned to playing hockey herself this season. On the eve of an away cup match in Tyrone in the autumn, she notified me that her team lacked an umpire and asked (ahem, told) me to cover it.

This caused me a problem. Football was my sport, having reached the giddy heights of the Down Amateur League as a referee. Hockey was my father’s sport but, as the rules have changed dramatically since his day, this only caused a further disadvantage – it wasn’t that I didn’t know the rules, but rather that I did know the wrong rules…

Anyway, a combination of flattery and desperation saw me invited back and I have been umpiring at various club levels more or less every weekend since (the league season was due to end for the team to which I am specifically assigned last weekend but has happily been extended).

Since hockey is presented as football with sticks, what are the key similarities and differences in officiating each? Can they even learn from each other more?


I do not really like the representation of hockey as “football with sticks”, in fact, but plainly there are similarities – two teams of eleven (including, at least normally, a goalkeeper) try to score goals. That offences are penalised by frees, the game starts from the middle with all players except the taker in their own half, and the whole of the ball has to be over the whole of the line to be off the field (or indeed in the goal) also makes game play quite familiar for anyone moving from one to the other.

Some officiating skills are, inevitably, quite similar too. In areas such as presentation of decisions, game management (gauging “temperature” and such like) and even the pre-match chat to both teams the basic skills are the same.


Hockey is (or at least should be) a game of stick skill, with fluent play and filling appropriate space more important than rigid positioning. Therefore the first obvious difference for the official, as I have found to my cost on many occasions, is that in hockey the umpire must try to stay (literally) ahead of the game.

This task is made slightly easier by the most obvious difference of all (from an officiating point of view), namely that hockey has two umpires on the field. This was, in fact, originally the case with football too, with each club providing one umpire each and then one off-field official to whom they could “refer” if in doubt – hence the term “referee”. By the mid-1890s, football had brought the referee on to the field and taken the umpires off it to run the lines. Hockey retains the older system, which is a significant advantage in terms of management at amateur level as each club still takes responsibility for providing one umpire; and it is a significant advantage for the official whose fitness may not be quite at the level of a professional athlete, as at least they only have to stay ahead of the game in one half of the field!

Having a fellow umpire does add another aspect of the game to manage, but if done well can be a huge advantage over the loneliness of the football referee. Even though umpires have responsibility in the rules for one half of the field, in practice this can be split diagonally and it is possible to operate as a team for incidents even when they are much closer to one umpire (occasionally it may still be the case that the further away umpire has a clearer line of view). Mastering this, of course, takes more than the few months I have had!

There are a number of other differences. Penalties for the attacking team in the attacking quarter are a lot more complex – both in terms of award and procedure – in hockey than they are in football; offences in hockey seem often to occur on the ground (stick-to-stick, kicking/stopping with the foot, etc), whereas in football particularly in the British Isles they may be at or higher than eye level (holding, pushing at headers, etc); hockey umpires also have a much wider range of sanctions available to control the game (four levels and three cards all of which indicate different types of suspension in hockey, versus two levels and only permanent suspension in football; and in hockey the same card may even be shown to the same player more than once). Also, the basic signals used by officials are similar but hockey has rather more and is stricter about their use.

A marked difference is match timing: in hockey, the whistle must be blown to end the half/match absolutely on time (although in certain circumstances, despite the whistle, play continues until a set piece is complete); in football the referee has a lot more discretion and it is possible and indeed advisable to wait until an attacking movement is complete before blowing for time; in fact, the football referee rarely stops the (main) watch at all, instead merely calculating (typically in groups of half minutes) how much time is added on by checking the watch at the beginning and end of any stoppage. With its two-umpire system hockey instead has a specific system for signalling time stoppages and they are thus (in theory at least) calculated to the second, albeit with the assistance of extra technical officials at higher levels.

Hockey also has, in my experience, a unique interpretation of “advantage”. The rules indicate that an offence may not be penalised unless it specifically disadvantages an opponent (it appears this has been done to make up for abandoning a previous rule on “forcing” offences); this is a more stringent requirement for applying the penalty than football’s “advantage” which allows play to continue only if penalising an offence would disadvantage the beneficiary. In other words, the application of “advantage” is not so much at the umpire’s discretion and is dictated in many circumstances by the rules, and does not so much depend on whether the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty versus playing on as whether it has been disadvantaged by the offence. This can quite often mean than play continues (or, at least, should continue) when an offence is committed even if the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty to be applied. Exactly how this is interpreted is, of course, subject to debate.

One final quirk is that hockey umpires actually view the game from the other side of the field from football referees. Firstly, as noted above, it is important to stay ahead of the attacking team in hockey (as the other umpire can cover behind), to the extent of going off the field by the goal if necessary. Secondly, hockey umpires always stand and move to the right of the attacking team (hockey must be played right-handed so there is a tendency for attacking play to occur on the right). Football referees have come, however, to run a “left diagonal”; assistants now always run the line to the right of the attacking team, thus it makes sense for referees to position themselves to the left. This was not always so; in the past in some places (including the UK), what were then referred to as linesmen actually switched sides at half-time to protect the pitch and so referees ran alternate diagonals in each half; although the “left diagonal” became established in international competition post-War and was becoming the norm everywhere by the start of the Champions’ League era, it took until this century for the Premier League to insist on it.


Hockey is inclined to change its rules more often that football changes its laws (as distinct from interpretations of them).

It is possible to watch football from the beginning of colour television and notice very few differences – the laws around goalkeeper possession (there was once a requirement to bounce the ball when running with it and subsequently an outright restriction on significant movement with it in the hands, both of which were effectively abandoned alongside the introduction of the “back-pass” law in the early 1990s) and some restarts (notably the kick-off) have changed, and gradually more substitutes have been allowed, but very little else is noticeable. There have been some technical changes (the ability to score a goal or own goal from certain restarts); bookings and sendings-off are now more common; and at top level there is now a board to mark how much added time will be played as a minimum (and there is a lot more of this than there used to be). Alongside gradual liberalisation of the application of the offside law over the past three decades, that is all.

Hockey, on the other hand, has changed markedly. My father played in an era when it was still permissible to stop the ball with the hand (which is still legal in ice hockey); but then he also played on grass and the game has changed profoundly since the surface changed. Rules around playing the ball above shoulder height, certain forms of obstruction and, most notably perhaps, offside, have been abandoned; the procedures and requirements for penalty corners have changed markedly; technical rules have come (and sometimes also gone) to try to promote skill and adapt to changed techniques while restricting danger, with varying degrees of success. Temporary suspensions (“sin-bins”) were long allowed in hockey but have been expanded; rolling substitutes have become the norm. Frees may now be “auto-passed” (it is not necessary for the taker to pass the ball; they may simply continue to play it). The exact rules around the taking of attacking free hits particularly in the attacking quarter of the field (alongside the recent abolition of “long corners”) change frequently.


At amateur level, at least in Northern Ireland, the sports are also structured differently. Hockey umpires at club level are volunteers, but assigned to a club (with all the camaraderie that comes with that). Football referees are paid (well, at least, compensated) per game, but have to make do with the odd referees’ meeting for the social side. In Ireland, where there is a marked shortage of qualified hockey umpires coming through, some thought is now being given to compensation.

Compensation for football referees is not the norm everywhere either, however. A league I briefly refereed in in southern Germany in fact always had two matches played after each other and the nominal home club for each provided the referee for the other match – meaning that referees were assigned to teams but went without compensation; in others words, the system was much closer to hockey in Ireland than football. (Thus I personally would be wary of going the compensation route for hockey umpires, as it is not clear it is necessary if clubs take some responsibility for development; that said, interestingly, both refereeing and pitch standards were markedly lower in Baden-Wuerttemberg than in Northern Ireland!)


Football has already decided to learn from hockey and other sports by introducing “sin bins” and rolling substitutes to the laws of the game; these are not yet permitted at the highest level, but that is surely a matter of time.

There are also proposals for football to borrow hockey’s “auto-pass” at free kicks; that may be more complicated, as it is easier in hockey to assess whether the ball has been stopped before the free is taken than it would be in football. (Football also briefly experimented with “kick-ins” from the touchlines some years ago, effectively making the return to play from the side the same as the general return to play after an offence as in hockey, but this was swiftly abandoned.)

As with rugby, hockey also gives more responsibility to the captain of each team. Football would surely gain from something similar, making captains the primary or in many cases sole point of contact between a team and the officials may improve game management and respect considerably.

It is perhaps less obvious what hockey has to learn from football (since hockey folk have vastly more exposure to football than the other way around, it is probable that it is more inclined to learn from it). From the angle of the communications professional as much as the sports enthusiast, I would tentatively make one suggestion: hockey should have Laws, not just Rules. The Rules are, evidently, a patchwork of amendments and adaptations going back some considerable time, and it is not always obvious even to experienced officials how they link to each other, what their purpose is, and how they should be interpreted (particularly after amendments); indeed, in some cases, there are details missing which then appear elsewhere (even something as fundamental as the rule around the “Method of Scoring” does not take account for procedures at a penalty corner, which at best amend it and at worst contradict it). Carrying out a fundamental revision, as has recently occurred in football, in this case to lay out clear Laws of the Game (which would only rarely be amended) alongside regulations (which could be adapted more readily, even across different levels) would surely make the game easier for players and officials alike to manage, while also enabling more thorough consideration of concepts such as “dangerous play”, “contact” and “misconduct”.

Ease of officiating

Which one, after all this, is easier to officiate? There, I remain genuinely undecided. In some ways hockey is the more pleasant sport to officiate because officials remain associated with a club, and thus with the camaraderie that goes with that – football is a lonelier operation altogether! On the other hand, the Laws of Association Football are broadly simpler and easier to apply consistently. Perhaps the best bet is to try both…


Direct free kicks and penalties…

A very good question was put to me on Twitter concerning why in football, if an offence would be a direct free-kick elsewhere on the field, it would not in practice necessarily be a penalty kick in the penalty area. There are a lot of aspects to that…

Firstly, the laws of the game are generally delightfully straightforward and logical (and ever more so). Essentially, there are two types of offence – technical (such as offside or handling a backpass) and more serious (such as tripping and handball); and thus two types of sanction – indirect and direct. Then the laws simply state that if an offence which would have been sanctioned with a direct free kick is carried out by a defender in the penalty area, it is a penalty kick. So far, so easy.

Secondly, however, no one seriously doubts that in practice an offence resulting in a penalty kick needs to be clearer than one elsewhere on the field. This is topical. This season alone there has been an instruction to referees to take pushing and holding more seriously; and there has been discussion among pundits (especially since many channels now provide an expert referee as well as former players) about the practical reality that it takes a little more for a penalty kick to be awarded than a direct free kick elsewhere.

So thirdly, how about a solution to this? Hockey, for example, does not insist on making a direct parallel between sanctions for offences outside and inside the circle; it specifies that only offences in particular circumstances inside the circle can result in a penalty stroke and only intentional offences in the defensive quarter outside the circle can result in a penalty corner. So why not, as one correspondent suggested, allow for wider use of indirect free-kicks to the attacking team in the penalty area – perhaps, for example, for minor shoves or tugs?

It may be difficult to write the laws to enable such a solution, but it could be worth a try.

If football is looking at dementia, rugby has serious work to do

Alan Shearer recently presented a documentary on dementia among former footballers, potentially linked to heading. This is best known because of the plight of former West Bromwich Albion and England forward Jeff Astle, whose death aged 69 in 2002 was directly associated with the effect of heading footballs.

Declaration: the Dementia Services Development Centre in the documentary is a former client of my company’s.

It is to football’s credit that it has some prominent figures taking this matter seriously. It would be easy to hope that the lighter balls of the modern age will have less effect, but significant priority is being given (by some at least) to finding out. Thankfully the game itself is changing tactically, with less priority given to long-distance heading and more towards attempting to control the ball and use it with the feet.

However football should, as Mr Shearer pointed out, put more money into research (and, I would also say, into support for former players seemingly affected). In practice, things rarely change without clear evidence.

American Football’s NFL set up a support fund for former players – even then, probably too late – and is now taking steps to amend the laws of the game to stop concussion. US Soccer has barred heading from under-11 matches to avoid concussion (it accepts that research concerning dementia remains inconclusive, although not least because there has not been enough of it).

In a recent inter-pro rugby match, a player was sent off for what the referee himself described as “a high tackle with force connecting with the head”. Astonishingly, some of the pundits regarded that sending-off as “harsh”. In fact, it should not even have been referred to the TMO; such a level of danger should result in automatic dismissals and lengthy suspensions because they are not part of the game (they are foul play) and they are undoubtedly dangerous. In fact, a “tackle” which is even at risk of going high and connecting anywhere near the head (and thus the brain) should result in questions being raised about whether the tackler should be playing again. This is not a “risk”; it is deliberate action causing danger.

Further, rugby needs to reconsider its coaching. Young men (in fact even boys) are taught in some contexts, particularly around the breakdown, to “lead with the head”. This defies belief. Although the object is not to connect with anything with the head, such contact is an inevitable consequence of “leading with the head” into a group of players. It should be obvious that there should be no question of any team sport teaching people to put their head into any danger.

This is before we even come to query the very laws of the game, which are still based around significant high-speed contact (with the risk always existing that this will go high) and high-risk contact at the breakdown after a tackle.

Football needs to do a lot more, at least to be sure about what the evidence says. However, if football needs to take some action to protect heads and thus limit concussion and dementia, rugby surely needs to take profound action up to and including thorough revision of its laws around tackles and breakdowns. There is a duty of care to players in all sports, and it needs to be taken far more seriously.

Rugby’s video reviews becoming too like an annoying SatNav

I would be interested to see a fundamental assessment of what priorities the authorities in various sports have when it comes to issues such as setting the laws of the game and enabling them to be applied effectively. Rugby, at least by European standards, was among the earlier major sports to adopt a video review system, usually referred to as “asking the TMO (Television Match Official)”. I am not opposed to video review, but rugby’s has become such a mess, it is making people like me lose interest in watching the sport.

Maybe, of course, it does not much matter if people like me are driven from the sport. I buy the odd shirt and attend the odd match but I probably contribute very little. Nevertheless, I would have thought at least one consideration would be improving the product for armchair fans – with the broadened exposure and indeed increased advertising which would come with that. So maybe it does matter. If it does, that the system is a mess from a spectator point of view comes to matter.

On New Year’s Day Ulster had a remarkable comeback against Munster, but its cause was definitely not helped at 0-17 by the referee and TMO colluding to find a reason to disallow a perfectly good try. Not only was this yet another example of the TMO getting things wrong (something which happens extraordinarily often), but in fact of a referee almost contriving a reason to disallow a score in the knowledge that the TMO may be convinced to back him up. The TMO was clearly influenced by the referee’s original implicit error, and therefore sought safety in numbers by going along with it – a normal response studied at length by psychologists, but one which served only to confirm a wrong decision. What is more, it took ages – had I not been making a drink at the time I would in fact have switched over to the Premier League football match also ongoing at that time before the decision was even made.

So, if people like me matter, this issue matters. It is removing from the entertainment value without any real evidence that it improves decision making. It is a bit like relying on a Satellite Navigation system which consistently takes you a more circuitous route than is actually required simply by looking at the map – yet if the unit is telling you to go that way, you are inclined just to go along with it (ultimately the same psychological effect).

That is not to say that TMOs, or indeed SatNavs, are always wrong. In fact, they are right more often than not (as they were subsequently in the Ulster match when a red card was confirmed). But if they take too long to reach a decision, and are then quite frequently wrong, we have to recognise that our reliance on them has become unhealthy and we need to think again about how they are used.

With football, the argument always was that such stoppages for video reviews would be unacceptable (notwithstanding my view that they are unacceptable in rugby). Eventually, however, Germany’s Bundesliga has arrived at a system which is much speedier. In a recent game at Wolfsburg, for example, a home goal scored from a header after a cross at a set piece was disallowed in the time it took for the players to run back to the centre circle for the restart without any apparent interruption at all – the referee made a specific request concerning offside quickly and had a response within seconds. (Even then, a majority of Bundesliga players taking a view in a New Year poll stated they would be happy to see video reviews abolished again – no doubt because they are simply viewed as too disruptive.)

Arguably, offside in football is clearer cut than crossing in rugby (the issue for Ulster in the case above), but for me the issue perhaps lies more in the question. First of all, while it is wise for a referee to have an original decision in mind, the TMO should not be led: the question should not be “Can you check for crossing?” (which leaves in place the leading assumption that there was crossing) but perhaps generally “Can you see any reason I should disallow the try”? Second, time is an issue: if no reason can quickly be found to overturn an assumption or disallow a score, it probably should not be overturned or disallowed. Third, it does raise a broader question – is it possible that, at least at the highest level, line judges in rugby should have an enhanced role, making the TMO a genuine last resort rather than a SatNav option we are inclined to overrely on?

As ever, I emphasise that rugby is not my game. But I do see a system which will need to be changed urgently if potential recruits to the game are not to be lost thanks to the sheer tedium of over-checking decisions only in too many cases to confirm errors.