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What most pundits are overlooking in the Premier League handball debate

A decision at the end of the Tottenham-Newcastle game last weekend has caused much uproar.

Tottenham Hotspur players surround referee Peter Bankes after he awards a penalty against them.
Tottenham Hotspur players surround referee Peter Bankes after he awards a penalty against them.
Image: PA

Updated Oct 2nd 2020, 8:02 PM

JAMIE CARRAGHER epitomised the sense of outrage when a controversial penalty was awarded in the dying moments of Tottenham’s clash with Newcastle last weekend.

Replays revealed an Andy Carroll header had come off the back of Eric Dier’s arm.

After consultation and numerous checks, officials opted to award the penalty, much to the anger of Jose Mourinho and the Tottenham players.

“It’s an absolute disgrace. An absolute joke,” Carragher said on Sky Sports.

“Newcastle fans will be ecstatic, I can understand that, but everyone else in this country will say exactly what I’m saying.

Eric Dier jumps for the ball, has no control of where his arms are going to be, it was a header half a yard away from him, hits him on the back of his arm, he has no idea what’s going on. This is a joke.

“Whether it’s the Premier League, the FA, Fifa, Pierluigi Collina, whoever is involved in this, stop it, because you’re ruining football for everybody. Absolute joke.

“You’ve got more trouble on your hands Premier League, Fifa, Uefa, whoever is involved. Change this now!”

To answer Carragher’s speculation, the man who implemented the rule is former Premier League referee David Elleray, who now oversees the laws of the game.

The likelihood of Elleray changing it any time soon appears unlikely. While it was introduced to England’s top flight this season, the rule has been used by the top European leagues for considerably longer and any switch would surely need to be implemented across the board.

And for those wondering, the wording of the rule is as follows: “A foul will be awarded the ball hits a player who has made themselves “unnaturally bigger” with their arm. IFAB determine that a hand or arm above shoulder height is rarely a “natural position”. There can be exceptions, such as when a player is falling. Leeway can also be given with ricocheted handballs, when it comes off a nearby player of if the player cannot see the ball.”

One of the calmer reactions to the incident came from former Premier League referee, Dermot Gallagher, who told Sky: “It was accidental I know, but there is no caveat in there to say accidental handball is no longer punishable. So unfortunately, however you cut it, the referee had no choice but to give a penalty.”

While the officials may be intent on sticking with the controversial interpretation for the time being, that hasn’t stopped the experts from offering solutions.

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Micah Richards suggested close proximity should be taken more into account. Jamie Redknapp has, in the past, argued the case for ‘common sense’ to be applied in such decisions.

The overlying problem, though, appears to have been overlooked by most of those unhappy with the Tottenham-Newcastle decision.

Whatever way you interpret handball will provoke anger and cries of protest in some quarters. There is not some magical interpretation waiting to be discovered that will result in 100% satisfaction across the board.

If you were apply ‘common sense,’ as Redknapp suggests, then the criteria for handball decisions would be too vague. Different officials would have different interpretations, which would inevitably lead to players and managers hitting out at a ‘lack of consistency’ in referees’ decision-making. Terms like ‘close proximity’ and ‘intent’ are also impossible to measure definitively.

That is not to suggest that the current interpretation should stay, only that any proposed alternative will be similarly flawed.

The problem, basically, is VAR. Before it was imposed, officials had a convenient excuse to ignore all but the most blatant handball decisions (and sometimes even those were overlooked). Now that everything has reverted to slow-motion, with the opportunity to view multiple replays, the need for a somewhat pedantic interpretation of the handball rule is virtually unavoidable. 

Since football’s inception, decisions that have caused uproar have been occurring on a regular basis. No matter what happens next, that trend seems unlikely to change, despite the increasing implementation of sophisticated technology.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures:

Saturday

Chelsea v Crystal Palace (12.30)
Everton v Brighton (15.00)
Leeds v Man City (17.30)
Newcastle v Burnley (20.00)

Sunday

Leicester v West Ham (12.00)
Southampton v West Brom (12.00)
Arsenal v Sheffield United (14.00)
Wolves v Fulham (14.00)
Man United v Tottenham (16.30)
Aston Villa v Liverpool (19.15)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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