Category Archives: Sport

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?


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.


Is fundamental change required for how football is refereed?

The Times’ Henry Winter is always excellent and some weeks ago he wrote a superb piece (frustratingly behind a pay wall) that if even Petr Cech is losing it with referees, there is probably a serious problem.

Recent weeks alone have seen utterly ludicrous penalties being awarded, yellow cards being issued for gross tackles which endanger safety and should result in long-term bans, and dives going unpunished. Mr Winter makes the interesting point that a hugely disproportionate number of controversial (actually, plain wrong) decisions have occurred late in games.

The main issue here is that the advent of professional refereeing has not seen any increase in refereeing standards. The footballing authorities seem, therefore, to be questioning what they can do to improve standards. I wonder, however, if there is not another question: is it conceivable to raise standards beyond their current level?

To put this another way, does football need to consider more profoundly how the game is officiated?

A modern football match at the highest level now typically has four or five officials – a referee, two assistants running the line, and one or two more technical officials managing the dug-out, substitutions and so on. Again, however, none of this has in fact improved the standards of refereeing. Are we not wasting these extra officials?

For example, originally football had two umpires (as hockey still has). American Football actually makes use of no fewer than seven on-field officials.

To give a recent but common example of how this works, I was umpiring a hockey match recently where a shot on the far side of the circle was deflected behind by a defender, so awarded a hit from the 23-metre line to the attacking team (the standard restart when a defender plays the ball behind unintentionally). It had not, in all truth, even occurred to me that the play behind had been anything other than legal. Yet the attacking team politely appealed for a penalty corner, on the basis it had in fact hit the defender’s foot – something which, as I politely explained back, I could not possibly have seen from my angle given it had occurred on the far side of the player concerned. However, I then had the option of glancing at the other umpire, who although further away had the better angle, who was able to signal back that in fact a penalty corner should be awarded and I was able to overturn my original decision. In fact the team scored from the penalty corner, so the decision was critical – but it required two umpires, not one. So is it reasonable that we expect one referee alone to get everything right in football?

For a period in some competitions two more officials were added on the goal-line to see if the ball had fully crossed it. With video technology, this has now been rendered pointless, but I wonder if they should not be reintroduced, but on the far side of the goal from the assistant referee. That would give four officials on the lines, covering between them almost the whole field, who could assist the referee with key decisions. Mic them all up, and you would have a system which may just work considerably more effectively than the current one.

Take, for example, the controversial awarding of a penalty to West Bromwich Albion against Arsenal just before the New Year (the one which so angered Petr Cech). In that case, the ball was on the left-hand side of the penalty area (the far side from the assistant referee) and the referee himself was chasing play a good fifteen yards back, with a completely hopeless angle. The attacking player in fact did not even appeal for a penalty, wanting instead a corner. The referee must have believed that he saw a hand go out to an unnatural position or with the intent to play the ball, and thus awarded a decisive penalty – even though that is simply not what happened. The point here is that an official positioned on the goal line would have been nearer the incident and could have told the referee that that was not what happened; indeed, he would likely have signalled for a corner, suggesting plainly the referee that there was no case for awarding a penalty.

Thus, by adding two further assistants on the goal-line and enhancing the powers of all the assistants (rather than just wasting them solely on technical issues such as dug-out management), we would have a game in which the correct decision would be arrived at far more often. The final arbiter would remain the referee, but he (or she) would no longer be making judgements solely based on what they have seen often from tens of yards away.

We need, at the very least, to re-frame the question. One human being can only observe so much. This is not so much about refereeing standards, as about refereeing systems.


Football’s New Year’s Resolution – sort kits out and stop exploiting people

Kits used by teams in the Premier League have long been beyond a joke. It can be genuinely quite difficult, on television, to tell a clear difference between them (for example, dark blue versus black), and often the tricky combination has been brought about for no good reason (for example when Arsenal change from red away from home against a team which does not wear red). The joke is now well beyond funny.

One of the worst offenders is in fact my own team, Arsenal. Arsenal this season have produced a mid-light blue kit and a black kit (with fetching pink trim) neither of which has any tradition and only one of which (if that) is even necessary. This is all about money grabbing – encouraging people (particularly parents under pressure) to fork out ludicrous expense for shirts which will be out of fashion in only a few months anyway. Far from going into grass roots sport, the money so gained (it is not earned) goes into making the likes of Stan Kroenke multi-billionaires rather than merely billionaires. It’s ludicrous and it’s nasty.


Then it gets worse. Not content with having produced an unnecessary blue kit alongside an unnecessary black kit (Arsenal’s traditional away colour was white and then, post-War, gradually switched to yellow), it turned out on a trip to West Bromwich Albion neither of these, nor the home kit in usual style, would work. This is partly because the home side also has a ludicrous kit – which is traditional blue and white stripes on the front but in fact entirely blue on the back. However, it is mainly because Arsenal produced two kits not for utility but for money-grabbing. A single traditional yellow with blue away kit would have produced no problem anywhere this season, but actually now we have the contrived situation of three kits none of which sufficed for this fixture. Thus, on top of everything else, red shorts had to be added – a fourth separate set of shorts.

This nonsense could of course be easily resolved. A simple requirement for every team to produce one kit which is predominantly a dark colour and one which is predominantly a light colour would sort it. This is the solution used everywhere from the National Football League in the United States to the Ulster Hockey League Junior Division 8B in Ireland. If the Premier League has even the remotest interest in sport rather than money grabbing, it will introduce a similar requirement – two kits per team, one dark and one light, and that’s it. (While we’re at it, let’s go back to reserving black for the ref – it is no one’s traditional colour.)

I’ll not hold my breath.


Surely action needed on rugby refereeing?

Rugby Union is not my sport – in the sense that although I don’t mind watching a good game of it, I never played, coached or officiated. Therefore, I need readers’ help on any discussion of it!

On Saturday, Scotland came close to defeating New Zealand in what would have been the Scots’ greatest victory for at least a generation if not ever. However, the officials failed to issue two yellow cards to New Zealand players and Scotland fell a score short.

In the second instance, the referee saw it wrongly but was convinced by what he saw – awarding a knock-on when in fact an advantage played would have put Scotland in for a try and probably seven points (as it went back for a penalty this was a gain of four over what actually happened, so they would have had eight minutes with a numerical advantage to find three more – quite possible). It seems widely accepted that Southern Hemisphere teams are specifically skilled at getting away with niggly fouls, and indeed that this skill is almost regarded as part of the game. Is that really viable?

Perhaps even more gallingly, in the earlier instance the referee allowed himself to be talked out if giving a justified yellow card by the television match official (TMO). This sort of thing is just ludicrous – what is the point of a TMO if he overturns correct decisions?!

With television cameras everywhere and the game now professional, this is only going to become an increasing problem. Refereeing rugby at the top level – under current circumstances and with current rules – is surely becoming a practical impossibility.

For a start, it seems to me that the laws of rugby are incredibly complex and yet they do not remotely clarify every eventuality. My understanding is that there are more laws in rugby governing merely what happens at the breakdown than there are for the entirety for football or hockey. The scrummage has now become all but a lottery, with so many regular infractions and a culture developing that some are overtly ignored (such as the put-in) that in almost any case a penalty could be given either way. This is before we get to the sheer danger element of a game now played by bigger men at bigger speeds.

Then there is the issue of the TMO, which is a good idea seemingly applied terribly. Too often, the TMO actually gets it wrong, or there is an element of lottery, or it is just unclear; furthermore, the whole process takes far too long and in many cases is unnecessary (used merely as insurance), often resulting in individual halves lasting approaching or even over an hour. The rules around the TMO surely need reformed; perhaps to something in line with American Football where teams have a limited number of challenges if they genuinely believe an error has been made.

It seems to me, however, the referee also needs further help on the field. Would there be a role for additional assistant referees (perhaps close to the action and positioned on sidelines but even coming in behind the try line when appropriate), refelecting some proposed developments in football? Is there even a case for two referees, as in hockey; or even many more (say, seven), as in American Football?

On top of this, as an outsider but someone presumably to whom the game hopes to appeal as an observer, really something has to be done to simplify the laws, perhaps at the same time as making the game safer. It seems to outsiders like me too often that the game is settled by penalty kicks which appear to be awarded for the most bizarre reasons. Surely the spectator should be watching the ball rather than the umpire’s arm?!

Readers… help, please!



When will sports authorities realise less is more?

It is fair to say none of the places I grew up – Northern Ireland, London or western Germany – is exactly a Rugby League hotbed so I don’t really follow the game, but as I enjoy any “dialect” of football I do so enough to know Australia are the world champions and Leeds are the Super League champions. About once a year I will sit and watch most of a game – a playoff match or a State of Origin clash usually.

The Rugby League “World Cup” began last week and so I brought up an article on it only to find, incredibly, that the tournament does not finish until 2 December. My interest immediately waned. Unbelievably, it will take longer to determine the world champions of Rugby League, a geographically limited sport, than it does to determine the world champions of Association Football, the most popular sport on the planet. That is ridiculous.

The same applies to cricket, whose one-day World Cup takes a staggering six weeks for a sport utterly absent from the Americas, Continental Europe, the Far East and all but southern and east Africa. Rugby Union is also six weeks – this is slightly more excusable given the number of rest days required, but is still too long to maintain interest bearing in mind, unlike Association Football, it is a minority sport everywhere it is played except New Zealand.

The principle in all of these cases is that they want to involve the maximum number of teams so as in theory to draw interest from a wider audience. However, this does not work, as those teams are battered and are out weeks before the tournament’s conclusion. Is anyone in Ireland gripped by Rugby League World Cup fervour? I suspect if I strolled down the street in Belfast, Dublin or Carrick-on-Shannon few would even be aware such a tournament existed, far less that there is in fact an Irish team in it (for two games before its inevitable elimination over a month before the tournament’s conclusion). In any case, there is no need for an Irish team to participate for people with a genuine interest to watch the concluding stages of the tournament – people who like Rugby League will want to see its best players and teams in action, regardless of who those are.

The principle is flawed, therefore. There is simply no need for a World Cup in any sport to take more than a month, nor to include lopsided encounters which just embarrass one team (and make the sport’s prententions about global status look ridiculous). Indeed, in some sports rather less time would suffice. Given a tighter timeframe, interest would be heightened. A Rugby League World Cup with six or eight teams in it, for example, could probably be concluded in three weeks and could be turned into a festival of Rugby League, capturing the attention with regular relatively evenly contested games before maintaining and even enhancing interest ahead of the Final. (Qualifying tournaments in turn would serve as a means to encourage wider participation beyond areas where the sport is a hotbed, without anyone getting embarrassed.)

The same principle applies to other sports too, of course. What would be wrong with a twelve-team Cricket World Cup over a month maximum, with two groups of six or three groups of four and then knock-out playoffs to determine the winner? Three or four weeks would suffice – indeed Hockey has managed World Cups in a fortnight under a similar format.

Of course, ultimately the same applies to Association Football too. The 24-team European Championship produced confusion and boredom; a 48-team World Cup will see teams playing for draws to advance from the group (or pursue shootouts in the later rounds) and result in unimaginable dross. People will turn off, and resultantly even precious advertising revenue will eventually be lost.

One day, sports will work out that sometimes less is more. Even for sponsors…


Which is the best NI team ever?

Northern Ireland’s comfortable 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic (a country with over five times the population which is no stranger to the latter stages of major competitions) last week was the fifth in a row (a clear record, and completed without conceding a goal) and brought up four years without a competitive home defeat and two years without conceding a competitive home goal. It also ensured second place in the group and a likely playoff spot for the World Cup (Northern Ireland is currently the best second-placed team other than European champions Portugal).

It does not need repeated that this feat is made all the more incredible by the fact it has been accomplished through sheer teamwork. Northern Ireland’s best players are mid-table in the Premier League and some are fully two divisions below. It does raise another interesting question, however: is this the best Northern Ireland team ever?

The assumption for the last two years has been probably not, despite qualifying for the knock-out stages of the European Championship. There are no truly world-class players – no Blanchflowers, Bests, or Jennings. However, such is the scale of the continued good form, do we need to re-analyse?

The team captained by Danny Blanchflower would be regarded by many as the best Northern Ireland team ever. It qualified for the World Cup by defeating Italy and then reached the quarter-final (coincidentally after drawing with West Germany, the defending champions; and then beating Czechoslovakia, who reached the final four years later, in a playoff). That perhaps still counts as the best achievement ever by a Northern Ireland team, although it is noteworthy that the game in general was nothing like as global then. Added to the argument against deeming this the best NI team ever would be the fact it was effectively a one-off achievement; a victory over a fine England team at Wembley the previous year aside, the form was not really maintained before or after.

In 1998 I was helping at short notice with an English lesson at a school near Cologne. At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked where I was from. In those days, the response “Northern Ireland” drew a relatively typical response along the lines of guns or other general ignominy, but this case was unusual. He responded instantly with the words “Harry Gregg” – it turned out he had in fact as a youth followed the West German team to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup and was in attendance at the group game with Northern Ireland, in which an inspired Gregg was the star in a 2-2 draw.

I suspect, therefore, most NI fans would regard the 1980-6 team as the best ever. It is of course more recent in the memory, but it also enjoyed success over a longer period. There was a British championship as a warm-up, then there was the run to within one game of the semi-final of the 1982 World Cup in Spain (with an epic victory over the hosts en route), there was the narrow miss in qualification of the then eight-team European Championship in 1984 (with wins home and away against West Germany in the group) alongside the last British Championship, and then there was the nail-biting qualification for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Throughout this period, Northern Ireland never lost at home to a foreign team. The team then contained regulars in club sides such as Arsenal and Manchester United and it was far from unusual to see a Northern Irish player win a European trophy or score the winner in the Cup Final, so there is little doubt it was the best group of players Northern Ireland ever had (comparative to the time). Against it would be the argument that it did not quite match the singular achievement of 1958, and again it is noteworthy that the game was less global (sides from Scandinavia, Turkey or Portugal were expected to be dispatched with ease back then).

I attended my first ever international match in November 1985 at Wembley, the one in which Northern Ireland qualified courtesy of a Jennings-inspired scoreless draw. The famous interview with the late Alan McDonald (“Come and see me!”) was unknown to me for two decades after, as having been present in the stadium I did not see it!

This then brings us to the current team. There is a sense this week that it all started in 2005 with a World Cup qualifying win over Beckham’s England, which was followed by a narrow miss in qualifying for Euro 2008 (including an epic 3-2 win over eventual champions Spain). Nevertheless, although that raised hopes a little, the truth is this is a separate team from that one, having emerged since a humiliating (and now unthinkable) loss in Luxembourg.

As established above, it is not the greatest group of players, nor has it (yet) delivered quite the achievements of the previous two candidate teams. Nevertheless, what it is achieving is being accomplished in a much more competitive era and is therefore arguably even more remarkable. As this is being done through team spirit and hard work, there is a case for saying this is the best Northern Ireland team ever.

As fans of the previous two candidate teams will tell you, enjoy it while it lasts! But what a fabulous team it really is.



No need for significant tampering with laws of football

Something I feel Association Football has over other sports is the simple and unchanging nature of its rules (actually “laws”). There are only 17 laws of the game (a sizeable proportion of which refer not to gameplay itself but to equipment and such like), and they are very simple. In fact, very often, when reference is made at the start of a season to changes in the laws of the game, this should properly be a reference to interpretation; the laws themselves rarely change much.

Not only does this provide simplicity, but also consistency through the ages. You can go back and watch a Cup Final from the early 1970s, or the brilliant Brazil of Pele, or whatever, and you know that the laws of the game were more or less the same then as they are now. There have been some minor amendments – notably around when or how the goalkeeper is entitled to hold the ball (the back pass law and precise rules around regaining “possession” having dropped the ball), interpretation of offside (which now gives the overwhelming benefit, both positionally and in terms of “interfering with play”, to the attacking team), and the restart of play (most obviously and most recently the kick-off, which is no longer required to go forward at all). Some interpretations have changed too, including around the “professional foul” and the precise circumstances in which an immediate red card is a legitimate punishment. However, the fundamentals are unchanged and easy to understand. Compare this with almost any other version of football, and the consistency is remarkable.

The game’s rules body, the IFAB, has now produced a report on some quite radical outline changes. I happen to think these are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but they are worth looking at.

Match timing change

I don’t like it at all

One proposal is for the game to consist of two 30-minute halves, but with the watch stopped for every dead ball (between a penalty being awarded and taken, between a goal and kick-off, between a card and restart of play, between a signal for substitution and restart, etc).

I can see why this is thought worthy of consideration, but for me it is impracticable. At amateur level, where there are not even linesmen far less stadium clock assistants, it would put too much pressure on referees, who have plenty more to be dealing with. (At amateur level a referee doesn’t generally stop the watch at all, just taking a mental note of the length of any exceptional stoppage. At least, that’s what I did…)

Half/full-time only on ball going dead

On balance, I don’t like it.

Rugby fans will remember this year’s Six Nations match between France and Wales, where play continued for a full extra quarter (20 minutes) as France sought the winning try and conversion. The laws state that the game should only end once the offensive team concedes possession or forces the ball to go dead; but the practical outcome was ludicrous.

Equally ludicrous, perhaps, was Welsh referee Clive Thomas’ decision to blow for full time as Brazil took a corner against Sweden in the 1978 World Cup – the kick was headed directly into the net, but the goal deemed to have been after time. That was equally ludicrous.

Association Football does perfectly well in comparison to either these days. There is clarity about the minimum amount of time to be added, and the whistle is typically blown with the ball near the half-way line or after a clearance. That is fine.

The proposal here is for half-time or full-time to occur only upon the ball going out of play. For me, this could make the final minutes highly artificial, with a team needing a goal desperately trying to keep the ball fairly central, and the defensive team trying to carve out opportunities simply to launch it out of play. I do see the potential advantage in the clarity of the situation, but for me there is nothing wrong with it as is.

Passing to yourself at restart

On balance, I don’t like it.

This idea is that the player taking a corner, goal kick or free kick could simply dribble – something allowed from a free hit in field hockey, by comparison.

I am not vehemently against this, but I wonder how practicable it is. When would we deem the kick to have been taken?

Another proposal would allow the goal kick to be taken even with the ball moving. Although I see why (essentially to speed up play), this seems an unnecessary complication to the laws.

A further proposal is for goal kicks to be taken on the side the ball went out. This seems consistent, because this is a requirement for corners. However, it would actually slow down the game potentially, just at a time the other proposals are designed to speed it up. (In practice, it would also often be difficult for a referee at amateur level to judge the side.)

Notably, the current laws require any goal kick or free kick from within the penalty area to leave the area before the ball is deemed to be in play. It is unclear how this requirement would be dealt with. I say leave well enough alone!

Back pass penalty

I thoroughly dislike it!

Perhaps the most bizarre proposal is to make handling of the ball by the goalkeeper from a back-pass throw-in an offence, thus penalised by a penalty kick.


The laws of the game are clear that handling the ball from a back pass, like offside, is not an offence. It is merely a technical infringement, thus penalised by an indirect free kick. Leave it be!

A ‘penalty goal’

On balance, I like it.

The specific proposal here is for a goal to be awarded where a player other than the goalkeeper stops the ball entering the goal with the hand.

I have in fact long advocated that when a goal is certain to be scored and is stopped by a foul, a ‘penalty goal’ should be awarded – I outlined the details here.

So I wonder about limiting this to handball. Nevertheless, I like the principle and perhaps it is a useful starting point.

Clearer definition of ‘Handball’

I like it – it’s necessary.

This is a nightmare for referees. What appears incredibly simple in theory is not at all in practice.

The law states essentially that handball must be deliberate but is unclear about whether any movement of the hand/arm and subsequent touching of the ball or the specific intent to play the ball is meant. I always called it according to the former, but I may well have been wrong.

Sudden death penalty

On balance, I don’t like it.

The proposal here, again in fact an alignment with field hockey, is to deem the ball dead as soon as a penalty is saved, as per a penalty shoot-out.

This is designed to stop encroachment into the penalty area as both teams chase the rebound, but I do not see the problem. You can stop encroachment merely by stopping encroachment!

I can see some merit in stopping the lottery of the rebound follow-up. However, it would be inconsistent with the other laws of the game and I see no compelling reason to make this change.

General changes 

I like them all.

Some other changes are already being trialled, and I have to say I quite like them:

  • changing the order of kicks in a penalty shoot out (these would become more like a tennis tie breaker, with the team winning the toss going first but then kicks proceeding two for each team);
  • captains only speak to the referee (I used to insist on this anyway); and
  • players leave the field at nearest touchline even for substitutions (to save time wasting).

However, beyond these and a couple of others noted above (alongside a minor amendment I would make around allowing a goalkeeper to take a free kick inside his/her own area from the hands), there is not much wrong with the laws as they stand.

Keep it simple…