Let’s be honest: being a ref is a thankless task at the best of times. But the men and women in black have an impossible job when the rules they have to interpret are unclear or confusing.
Take offside. It’s unquestionably always been the law that stirs the most controversy as its interpretation frequently determines the result of a match. Changes made in recent years – being level is on-side; if a player is not directly involved in play he can’t be offside even if he’s the ‘wrong’ side of the defence – were meant to improve the game and make the rule more transparent.
Yet these changes have had the opposite effect, causing yet more uncertainty and controversy, a situation exacerbated by linesmen being instructed to flag only when the ball reaches the player deemed to be in an offside position. This enforced delay means that the crowd inevitably shouts for offside well ahead of the linesman’s flag which gives the impression the assistant ref doesn’t know what he’s doing and is only responding to pressure from the fans. No wonder “You don’t know what you’re doing…” is the most frequently heard chorus at football grounds around the country.
Problems with the offside rule are only the start. What about shirt pulling or holding in the penalty area when corners or free-kicks are defended? Or defenders using their arms to shield the ball running out for a goal-kick or throw-in, but in doing so deliberately obstruct an opponent? Whatever happened to the shoulder-to-shoulder challenge – the use of arms has supposedly always been outlawed?
While the rule-change that meant that keepers can’t handle back-passes and have to release the ball after eight seconds have undoubtedly been beneficial, the eight-second rule is widely abused these days. I can’t recall one ref penalising a keeper for delaying distribution to illegally give his team breathing space or simply waste time.
The authorities should act to clear up these current weaknesses in the rules of our game. And while they are at it, how about introducing rugby’s sin-bin ruling for bookable offences? That move would, at a stroke, do more to clean up the game than any other measure.
Stephen Stills – Peterborough United fan