Saturday 3 December 2016

Aidan O'Hara: The right decision may not be the right option

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

Eric Dier celebrates a goal for Tottenham which could have been ruled out for offside
Eric Dier celebrates a goal for Tottenham which could have been ruled out for offside

In terms of maintaining attention, it's a risk to start a football column by talking about cricket but bear with us. When bowlers are bowling, a part of their front foot must be behind a line at their end in order for the ball to be legitimate. If it's on or in front of the line, it's called a no-ball. A batsman can't be out from a no-ball and, therefore, it's something of a mortal sin for a bowler to put in the effort to get a wicket, only for it to be ruled out because their foot was over the line.

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It is still the umpire's job to call these no-balls but when they have the safety net of video technology, many of them don't seem to bother. As a result, in this summer's Ashes, there were dozens of illegal balls bowled that weren't called until a wicket fell at which point the umpire, as they said, "just wanted to check".

At times, the front foot was close to being over the line but on several occasions it was nowhere near it which meant that the batsman had to wait on the field for the decision and the crowd had to momentarily suspend their cheering. The right decision was ultimately reached but in terms of breaking up the natural rhythm of a sporting moment, it can have the effect of a fart during a tender moment in the bedroom.

Debate

On Saturday in the Premier League, the debate over video technology arose once again and, perhaps, in 20 years' time, people will look back at this era with confusion as to why referees were allowed to make mistakes when there was a video referee to make the decision for them. If that's the case, however, an important game will probably last over two hours with referees "just wanting to check" virtually every decision.

There will be inevitable comparisons with rugby where regular use of the Television Match Official is, for many, becoming a growing irritation. What technology has proved, both in cricket and rugby, is that it makes officials doubt themselves even in the easiest of situations and once they're in any doubt, they'll delay and check and delay again before making a decision.

Referees in rugby can advise a player to get back from an offside position rather than penalise them immediately and cricket umpires can tell a bowler that their foot is close to being over the line but the culture of referees pointing out a player's infraction rather than punishing it just isn't there in football.

In the Tottenham game against Manchester City, there were three goals which came from players being in an offside position but there would have been an outcry had the linesman spotted Harry Kane was standing offside before Christian Eriksen's free-kick and advised him to get back onside, as would regularly be the case over the course of a rugby match.

And while Tottenham's first goal was the most obviously incorrect decision, it's arguably the one that will present the greatest challenge should any future offsides be "sent upstairs".

It's unfathomable that the linesman didn't raise his flag to signal that Kyle Walker was in an offside position before Walker crossed and City cleared the ball. At that point, the phase of play was finished but because the ball broke to Eric Dier and he smashed it into the bottom corner, Walker being offside suddenly became an issue.

If there was a TMO in place, they might have been asked was anybody offside and interfering with play when the ball was struck, to which the answer would have been "no" and the goal given. If they were to go back one more phase, however, Walker would have been called offside and the goal disallowed.

All of which would have been happening in a stadium of 40,000 Tottenham supporters convinced that they had just equalised. Given the occasionally volatile nature of supporters, it's unlikely that any controversial moments would be replayed on a big screen creating a scenario where they would be angry as to why the decision had gone against their team and completely in the dark as to why.

In the NFL, an official takes a moment to explain his decision but there's plenty of time for that when a game of four quarters lasting 15 minutes goes on for three hours.

The goal-line review system has worked particularly well in Premier League mainly because there is no disruption to the natural flow. Perhaps there is technology which can consistently maintain a line on the furthest defender back and show a player beyond that to be offside in real time which can be relayed instantly to the referee or assistants before any celebrations kick in.

Undermined

But if that happens, no assistant referee will ever again flag for offside for fear of calling it incorrectly and being undermined by video technology while the joy of a last-minute winner or equaliser, such as West Ham's against Norwich on Saturday, will be tempered by referees miming the shape of a rectangle rather than making the call themselves.

For some, "line decisions" such as offside don't bring technology use far enough but, as Daniel Taylor pointed out in the 'Observer' last week, when Graham Poll and Howard Webb have completely the opposite views over Hector Moreno's tackle on Luke Shaw, it sums up the limitations of using replays.

Despite the inevitable comparisons, rugby, cricket and American Football continue to do what they feel is best for their sport and, when it comes to replays and technology, football must do the same.

Perhaps it is better to have every single decision called correctly, with the price being that 8.0 kick-offs finish at 10.30 and the spontaneous outpouring of emotional energy that a goal brings to a ground is diluted while a person sitting in a referee's box rewinds their Sky+.

"Sometimes it is for you, sometimes it is against you," said Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino regarding the offside decisions in Saturday's 4-1 victory. "This is football."

To paraphrase an expression more commonly associated with cricket, stopping and starting a game and ripping an atmosphere out of a stadium while checking all available replays, for the moment at least, is just not football.

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