Deliberate Deliberations

Surely I can’t be the only one more than a little confused at the decision by the English FA to rescind the red card that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually was awarded for his sprawling save in the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea. I mean as deliberate hand balls go this season that was by far the pick of the bunch. Arsenal contested the decision on the basis that the visible trajectory of Eden Hazard’s attempt on goal was destined to go wide and as such the midfielders deliberate, and successful, attempt to stop the ball with his hand would have all been in vain anyway. The FA’s conclusions to agree with Arsenals’ thesis on this matter is one of the most ridiculous decisions of the season and I’m astounded that given the propensity for the English media to chastise the FA and all that they do there has been not so much as a whimper of disagreement, in fact I’ve read and heard many agreeing with what the FA has decreed.

I’ve been trying to rationalise the outcome of the governing bodies findings and I have struggled whilst simultaneously trying to cast aside any conspiracy theories about how being young and English give’s you that little bit of extra leeway. Somehow over the last 12 months the rules surrounding handball have become just as muddled as offside and the six-second rule. Natural body position, deviations in flight and general proximity to the ball itself have all been used as defence’s when the deliberate nature of handball has been the focus of debate, and you know what? That’s fine, it would be remiss of any official not to take these factor’s into consideration when making a final decision, the problem I have is that in the case of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain none of these factors came in to play. It was deliberate as deliberate could get. Yes, Andre Marriner made a massive error in red-carding Kieran Gibbs but the decision to give a red card and penalty for the offence itself was spot on as far as I’m concerned.

Let us try to transport ourselves into the mind of ‘The Ox’ on that fateful Saturday lunchtime. Your team are 2-0 down after a 15 minute spell where you are getting totally over-run, recent history has shown that another thumping is on the cards and here come Chelsea again. You get yourself back on the line for the inevitable moment they manage to break through once again. The shot comes in and it’s heading towards you. It’s at chest height but too far away to get in front of it. You could head it away but with the speed of the ball coming at you the lack of control you would have would probably result in a goal anyway. You decide to risk it and fling your body to your left and stick your hand out to claw the ball away. Now I’m fully aware that the timeframe required to read that paragraph is far greater than the time the midfielder had to make the same decision but I hope it shows that the decision he made to throw a hand out to stop it was a conscious one and one taken oblivious to the fact that the ball was going wide and as such a foul worthy of a straight red card.

Whenever I delve into a debate of this nature I like a comparison and when it comes to red cards and handballs there are a few to pick from but I have restricted myself to just a couple, both with goal scoring opportunities at the heart of them.

One of my earliest memories of being a Scotland fan is a World Cup qualifier in 1992 away to Switzerland, at that time I had to make do with a combination of radio and late night television highlights but I, like many other members of the Tartan Army, still to this day remember the moment that Richard Gough caught the ball. A good old-fashioned punt up the park from the Swiss defence headed towards the then Scotland captain. With a Swiss forward descending all the signs pointed towards Gough launching a header back from where it came, however the ball was too high and in a moment of madness he reached his arms into the air and plucked it from the sky like a front row in a rugby line-out thus preventing an almost certain one-on-one opportunity for Switzerland to score. His punishment was rightly a red card but imagine that same scenario in the world of the English FA. If you refer back to the  Oxlade-Chamberlain incident as Gough’s offence did not occur within the 8ft by 8yd area contained within the goal posts a red card would not have been necessary.

If that is too subtle what about the moment where Luis Suarez ‘broke the hearts of Africa’, as one commentator proclaimed, at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when stopping Asaomah Gyan’s winner in the final minutes of extra time in Uruguay’s World Cup quarter-final with Ghana. He was again rightly red carded and much debate followed about whether Suarez had cheated or simply done what he had to do to keep his side in the tournament. His histrionics as Gyan missed the resulting penalty are now part of World Cup folklore but there is no debating that the punishment fitted the crime. If that ball was going a couple of inches over the bar and Suarez had done the same thing would there have been the same ambivalence to the incident by the media and the red card reversed or would a pre-Premier League Suarez be a villain before he had even hit these shores. Suarez just like Oxlade-Chamberlain was knowingly trying to stop a goal, the only difference was the shot he stopped was on target.

My argument remains that Oxlade-Chamberlain was guilty of preventing a goal scoring opportunity with his hand and the red card and penalty awarded was the correct decision to give. The fact that the ball was going off target is a technicality that opens a can of worms that will go to further blur the lines of what should be one of the simplest rules in a game where the primary objective of an outfield player is to kick it with his foot, not to juggle it with his hand.

The Boys Who Cry Wolf

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The AFC U22 Championship is not usually where I would find inspiration for the things I write but an incident in the quarter final between South Korea and Syria was sufficient in prompting me into writing about something that more than a niggles. In this instance, with South Korea comfortably leading 2-0 they followed popular convention and kicked the ball out of play so treatment could be given to an injured Syrian midfielder. Syria, however, never got the memo and from the resulting throw in proceeded to score an ultimately meaningless goal in their sides 2-1 defeat in Oman.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, think back to 1999 and that infamous moment when Arsenal striker Kanu, galloping forward in a way that only he could, passed a ball through to Marc Overmars to score the winning goal in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield United. There was such an uproar that Arsene Wenger felt obliged to offer a replay which Arsenal duly won, would he have been so generous had it been against Manchester United, we’ll never know. There is countless other examples, including that of Luiz Adriano, who after scoring for Shakhtar Donetsk against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League from what should have been uncontested dropped ball, found himself handed a one game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct.

This issue continues to evolve, highlighted most recently in a game featuring Arsenal once again. With 20 minutes to go and the scores level Arsenal were on the attack with Chelsea midfielder Ramires down in the centre circle, the ball was at the feet of Aaron Ramsey who, clearly unsure what to do, decided to kick the ball out. A decision that brought a handshake from opposition midfielder Frank Lampard but raised the ire of Olivier Giroud and a number of his teammates who believed Ramsey had thrown away a potential advantage in one of the biggest games of the season. Was Ramsey right to do what he did? And to that matter is it right that it should fall into the hands of the players to make that decision?

Well I think the answer should be a resounding no, in today’s footballing climate where going down injured is employed more as a tactic to break up play and time waste as opposed to the occurence of an actual injury. Why should a player place his trust in the fact that another player is not ‘at it’ for want of a better term. We’ve seen it hundred’s of times before, a player goes down, the ball gets played out and minutes later the he is running about at the peak of his powers without a physio even entering the field of play. It’s frustrating to watch and I’d imagine equally frustrating to play alongside as well.

Perhaps the referee should intervene, they already have the right to stop the game for a head injury why not expand that remit to include any injury that they see worthy of a stop in play? Surely a better idea than player intervention but on deeper contemplation still subject to the same fundamental flaws that are a result of a member of either team kicking the ball out of play. Well, except in this situation there is the added pantomime of the player being guided off the pitch only to be waved back on seconds later whenever it takes the official’s fancy.

Then there’s the third option, we don’t stop play at all. I’m not a heartless man, I’m just a man who is fed up of games being interrupted because a player who has got a blade of grass stuck up his nostril is dealt with in the same manner as a player who has torn a ligament or broken a bone. Now generally I’m not an advocate of rules of other sports being transferable to football. I think the addition of a video referee would be a step too far, taking away some of the controversy that we as football fans thrive on, and that sin-binning in a football context would not be as effective as a deterrent as it is in ice hockey and rugby. With that said the method in which players are treated during a game of rugby could and should be implemented in the football matches of today.

For those unfamiliar of the procedure when a player goes down but the game continues and a physio comes on to the field of play to administer treatment when and where required. If the injury is serious then a communication is made to advise of such and the game is stopped.

None of these actions require new technology, they would reduce gamesmanship and time wasting, stop the needless to and fro from the touchline of players and, in theory, as an action it is instantly implementable. I say ‘in theory’ as there would still be a bit of working out to do in relation to such a change. For example if a player is being treated on the field of play do they become inactive? I would suggest they would, meaning that if a defender is lying stricken they can’t play an opponent onside whist at the other end a striker can’t resurrect themselves suddenly whilst realising that they are clean through on goal.

As a resolution it’s not perfect, a first draft of any proposal is testament to that. When a foul is given and there is a natural stop in play then bring the physio on and let treatment be given but don’t then make the victim of the foul traipse off the pitch because you made someone else who was chancing his arm fifteen minutes earlier do the same thing. Like many things in football the best resolutions involve the mythical concept of common sense but until such time arrives in that the myth becomes a reality I think those with the ability to do so should empower themselves to ensure that yet another one of football’s more annoying foibles doesn’t continue to blight the game that we love.

How to Celebrate the FIFA Way

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The last time I went to a game of football and the team I was supporting scored a goal I celebrated, if it was a really big game or a really important goal, I really celebrated, fist pumping, hugging people beside me that I didn’t know and letting out a colourful barrage of joyous expletives that only a Scottish football fan can. Do you know why, because it feel’s brilliant, a release of tension built up over a week of knuckling down and doing some of the things that you necessarily never wanted to do in the first place, all to pay for that ninety minutes on a Saturday, Sunday or whatever day it may be where anything could happen.

Now imagine you are a football player, finely tuned to give everything for those same ninety minutes and you score a goal, what you do next is crucial, how do you celebrate? A knowing nod to the crowd? Do you kneeslide to the corner? Do you gather your teammates together for a ridiculously over choreographed routine involving the lady whose quietly minding her own business at the first aid station, or do you simply stand arms outstretched soaking in the cheers or boos that the crowd are bellowing at you and you alone? Sometimes the classics are the best and wrapped up in the emotion of it all you pull at your sleeve hard and the next thing you know you are whirling your top above your head like you’re about to take off. As things calm down you put your top back on and jog back to the centre circle where you are greeted by a referee standing with his hand in the air waving a yellow card in your face.

Seriously!?!? I know this isn’t a new phenomenon, but an incident in a match between Everton and Southampton agitated me so much that it prompted the words you see before you. With Southampton 1-0 down and 20 minutes left to go substitute Gaston Ramirez took a pop at goal that had no right to go in but Joel Robles in the Everton goal made a hash of it and so with joy Ramirez spun away to celebrate taking his shirt off in the process. That’s not all though. He then gave the shirt to a young Everton fan sitting in the front row. So not only has he pulled his team back into a difficult game but also contributed to making that young fans trip to Goodison one he will likely never forget. His reward for all these positive efforts, a yellow card. It’s just ridiculous.

A quick history lesson, in 1999 Ryan Giggs scored perhaps the greatest FA Cup goal of all time in a semi final against Arsenal that was the culmination of one of the great rivalries of the modern era. A majestic run and finish that continued after the ball had settled in the goal as Giggs, with the hairiest chest seen in the UK since Pete Sampras last changed his shirt at Wimbledon, sprinted around the pitch with his top waving wildly in the air. Did he get booked? Of Course not. So what’s changed?

Well not a lot, a quick glance at the FIFA 2013/14 rulebook and what merits a cautionable offence in relation to the ‘Celebration of a Goal’ can be read as follows:

A player must be cautioned if he removes his shirt or covers his head with his shirt.

Leaving the field of play to celebrate a goal is not a cautionable offence in itself but it is essential that players return to the field of play as soon as possible.

Referees are expected to act in a preventitive manner and to exercise common sense in dealing with the celebration of the goal.

In the case of Gaston Ramirez, was common sense used? I don’t think so, and in the numerous other cases where a player is booked for the removal of their shirt is common sense used as best practice? I’m not sure.

It’s all abount interpretation. My interpretation of the rule would be that unless the removal of the shirt is done so in an inflammatory nature or to display a message inappropiate in its context to its surroundings then a yellow card would not be required. However the mandatory wording of the initial law would mean that if this was in force over the last 20 years Fabrizio Ravinelli would have had as many suspensions as he would have had goals, renowned for pulling his shirt over his head whenever he scored a goal, he would have been left to twiddle his thumbs as part of his celebratory routine.

Arguments that players should not show their bare chest are becoming redundent when so many players wear body hugging under armour to prevent muscle strains and a common sense approach can be used in countries where such a gesture will cause offence. The removal of garments to flash an individual sponsors logo like the infamous Nicklas Bendtner boxer incident may cause the bean counters in Geneva a headache but in actuality cause no real harm. In fact the huge deal that FIFA made of it only highlighted Paddy Power’s cause further and that’s without the ludicrousness of a fine that was greater in amount than many given to clubs across the globe for the overt use of racism, violence and homophobia within their grounds.

I am not saying the rule is wrong, as I have stated in some instances a yellow card should be considered, what I am suggesting is to take away the mandatory nature of the caution and let actual common sense on the part of the referee decide the players fate. If we don’t then moments like the one experienced by that young fan at Goodison will be a thing of the past and in my eyes that can not be for the good of the game.

Scotland Aftermath and a Queasy Journey to Lanark United

The last thing you want after a heavy night and a rather disappointing result for Scotland is to navigate the twisting, hilly roads to Moor Park, home of Lanark United as I once again got my weekly fix of the sporting glory that is Junior Football. The stomach was on super spin cycle and there was a point when I thought pulling over may be in order. Suffice to say 90 minutes later my health and therefore my mood were much better. Pollok are a team I have followed since I was a wee boy,  a weekly fix of chat about funny shaped veg, football, life updates and the character assasination of the various regulars who attend these games. There is ‘Shorts Man’ who walks to every game from his Shawlands home no matter where, there were rumours that he didn’t even own a pair of trousers a rumour that was dispelled when somebody spotted him wearing what they believed to be, after much eye rubbing, a suit. There was the unfortunate occasion where through a lack of communication me and Papa G found ourselves in Kilbirnie only to find the game abandoned. ‘Shorts Man’ also failed to receive this information and it was hard not to feel sorry for him as we saw him walking towards the ground as we drive away.There’s ‘Buster Bloodvessel’ who will one day keel over such is the incessant barrage of obscenities and slightly black and white tinted observations that he screams, and ‘The Professor’ always behind the goal where Pollok are playing into and always talking absolute nonsense. Not to mention The Dingles, Polloks very own version of The Scheme who seem to switch on a bi-annual basis between supporting Rangers or Celtic.

These characters will reappear over the season in my musings I’m sure but to the football and Pollok won a rather flat game 4-1, a double from Roddy Hunter as well as goals from Ian Diack and Calum Hardie. It was a game that Pollok dominated and yet as always there was that impending feeling of doom when with 20 minutes to go it was still only 2-1. 7 out of 9 is a good start to the season and with no team having a 100% record even at this stage the league could be very tight this year. How Pollok fare will very much depend on how they fill the void left by Tommy Nolan’s horrendous injury as without him they still seem to be lacking in imagination. The tackle that caused it, which happened away to Petershill, was reckless at best and artificial turf or real grass would still have caused a great deal of damage to Tommy, who is now out for the season, you’re going to be missed in midfield.

Onto the durge that was the Lithuania game, it finished 0-0, Scotland were the better team and Lithuania seemed to be on a mission to kick the living s**t out of any Scotland player with an ounce of quality. The fact Alan Hutton was our most potent attacking threat suggests that something ain’t quite right. Yes we kept a clean sheet but we didn’t score and in NO WAY is this result a good one no matter what Craig Brown, Craig Levein or anyone else says. 12 points from the Lithuania and Liechtenstein games should have been demanded and anything less has already left us with a difficult task once again, not impossible but more difficult.

There appears to be quite a swell in opinion that Scott Brown should not be near the team and I agree with this, in fact I have called for this for the past 12 months. He is the antithesis of what is wrong with Scottish Football at the moment, all bluster and running but absolutely no technique or rationale behind anything that he does. To be quite frank, I’m amazed he is getting a regular game for Celtic at the moment. I could run about shouting and kicking people, give me a call up, give me 20 grand a week, i’ll do that job and I have a right foot that I have trouble standing on nevermind kick a ball with, I’m a natural lefty.

Darren Fletcher seems to be getting a fair amount of abuse as well and I think a reality check is needed in terms of what D. Fletch brings to the team. Yes in Manchester United, he plays for one of the biggest teams in the world, but his role there is a destroyer not a creator, the role that we fill with the likes of Lee MuCulloch and Paul Hartley is what he does. Small nations tend to think that because they have a player playing for a top drawer team they are automatically capable of being there Lionel Messi, Rafael Marquez is a prime example, a centre back for Barcelona up until the end of last season, now at New York Red Bulls, he played as a center back cum winger cum attacking midfielder for Mexico in the last 2 World Cups. Fletcher has quality and I believe that he is key to any advancements we make.

Onto the glamour tie against Liechtenstein, and firstly the fact that he SFA are charging £25 for a ticket is a scandal, I understand why they have to do it, supporters much like myself have already paid for our seat through the Tartan Army and to then offer reduced prices to everyone else would be akin to lifting a kilt up and showing us there walloper, but a bit of pre-planning could have ensured that there would be a decent turnout for a crucial qualifier, as it stands after the Lithuania game I will be very pleasantly surprised if we get in excess of 35,000 for the game.

The game itself is vital not just for the result but for morale throughout the team, management and fans. If by some method of mass ineptitude Scotland fail to win then it will all be over before its even started. I’m sure we will win and I’m also sure we will score a couple of goals, neck on the line 3-0. My team as situation dictates at present would be McGregor, Hutton, McManus, Weir, Wallace, Hartley, McCulloch, Dorrans, McFadden, D.Fletcher, Miller 4-2-3-1. Hartley and McCulloch provide a shield allowing Hutton and Wallace to provide the width. Not just for Tuesday but the formation going forward. Have Fletcher in the middle of the attacking 3 so that he can sit and allow McFadden and Dorrans to do what Scotland are almost always lacking: be creative. Ideally Steven Fletcher if fit in place of Miller who seems to be adverse to scoring in a Scotland top and the option to fling on Boyd when we need a goal, the squad of players we have at present I believe like for like are better than some of our most recent sides but already 1 competitive game into his reign Craig Levein needs to show his mettle and re-affirm the belief that this time we will be there. I have the faith and will never lose it, its my Scottish Affliction that i wished a few more shared.