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'Tinkerman' Elleray causes handball pain with 178 law changes over four years

Sam Wallace



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The handball change is just the latest alteration of the rules

The handball change is just the latest alteration of the rules

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'As the game has struggled with this new law that has so far offered no room to interpret deliberate handballs, some have sought to locate the source of the blame.' (stock image)

'As the game has struggled with this new law that has so far offered no room to interpret deliberate handballs, some have sought to locate the source of the blame.' (stock image)

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The handball change is just the latest alteration of the rules

Since the former referee David Elleray took control of the laws of football, at the start of the 2016-17 season - when his organisation IFAB assumed that jurisdiction from FIFA - the man whose own on-pitch career ended 17 years ago, has overseen 178 law changes.

It is a quite astonishing number, from the colour of the tape on the socks of players, to passing the ball backwards from kick-off, to a complete revision of the handball laws that means the game finds itself in handball chaos. The former public school master, who refereed his last game in May 2003, may yet be the most influential official in the game and he certainly seems to know that.

One might argue that football's laws functioned quite well for 153 years until Elleray's interventions, and yet his appetite for change has been something to behold. What is he up to? No one can quite say for sure and he did not respond to requests for comment this week. What is not in doubt is that the man who is IFAB's technical director has the power to shape the game's laws.

Some of those changes have been small. On corners, Elleray added the word "clearly" to the law that dictates, "the ball is in play when it is kicked and clearly moves". That was intended to stop those surreptitious corners when, unbeknown to the defending team, the ball is live and a second attacking player dribbles towards goal. He instigated the law that the ball can be passed backward from kick-off, but the following year had to add an amendment that the player striking it had permission to enter the opposition's half.

He oversaw the introduction of the law that no longer requires a goal-kick to leave the penalty area, paving the way for the white-knuckle passing sequences between Arsenal's centre-backs favoured by Mikel Arteta.

It has been unintended consequences of law changes that have been the nub of the problem and nowhere more so than handball. The epidemic of penalties unleashed on the game by the change of the law over accidental handball overseen by Elleray has been disastrous. Mike Riley, the head of the select group referees, the PGMOL, now accepts that those awarded recently against Victor Lindelof, Joel Ward and Matt Doherty were wrong.

As the game has struggled with this new law that has so far offered no room to interpret deliberate handballs, some have sought to locate the source of the blame.

Steve Bruce called upon managers to unite and demand change from the Premier League. Jan Vertonghen was pretty certain it was the English FA's fault.

Others pointed the finger at FIFA. But the buck stops with IFAB, the International Football Association Board, and their meddling technical director Elleray.

The Premier League has sought to solve the problem by announcing this week a change to the interpretation of the wording of Elleray's handball law that penalises players who make themselves "unnaturally bigger". In doing so the Premier League hopes to take context into consideration.

That means an arm raised away from the body may represent a natural position when considering what the player in question is trying to do.

There are concerns among Premier League referees about keeping up. They remember the story of Keith Stroud, who in April 2017 fell foul of one law change over encroachment on a penalty kick and did not referee again until September of that year. Just three rounds of games into this league season and the select-group referees are already being asked to consider a new interpretation to fix a new problem.

It comes on top of last season and the penalising of any handball, accidental or otherwise, in the build-up to a goal - when, under IFAB's laws - it "creates a goalscoring opportunity".

Defining deliberate handball was always a challenge for officials, but in penalising all handballs, Ifab and Elleray have simply made it worse. In doing so, they have not removed the thorny issue of intent - it is still a question for referees and VAR to decide which players are trying to make themselves "unnaturally bigger" and which of them are trying to play the ball within the laws.

For a snapshot of the confusion, consider the diagram on the IFAB website under Law 12 "Fouls and Misconduct" intended to define what part of the arm constitutes handball. The figure illustrated appears to suggest that the ball striking any part of the arm not covered by a short sleeve - "the red zone" - is handball.

But in the wording of the law, the red zone starts much higher up the arm, "in line with the bottom of the armpit".

Elleray is already past 11 rewrites of the VAR protocol, still ultimately undermined by its obsession with correcting "clear and obvious errors" instead of simply all errors. His new handball law meant that in La Liga in Spain and Italy's Serie A, which implemented the hardline interpretation last season, they experienced a dramatic spike in penalties - 48 and 57 respectively, compared to 20 in the Premier League.

That is the effect of the tinkering of IFAB and Elleray, a man who seems determined to pursue change, whether we like it or not. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk