Jim White

Time for indirect action

Jim White

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Micah Richards gives away a penalty

Watching Phil Dowd ease Liverpool's passage into the Carling Cup final at Anfield on Wednesday night, a refereeing friend of mine asked this: isn't it about time we restored the indirect free kick?

Under the current rules Dowd had no choice but to give a penalty when the ball struck Micah Richards on the arm. This despite the fact that the Manchester City captain clearly did not intend to handle the ball. Yet, his arms were raised above shoulder-height, so when the ball hit him, Dowd was obliged to point to the spot.

The trouble is, you try launching yourself in front of a moving football to block it without raising your arms. To keep them neat and out of harm's way down by your side is physically impossible. The arms go up instinctively in order to provide balance.

It seems mighty unfair to see a gallant attempt to put himself on the line for his team's cause rebound so unfairly on Richards. Deliberate handball? The poor guy wasn't even looking at the ball, he had no idea where it was going. Yet the infringement was clear.

So why not, my friend wanted to know, borrow an idea from rugby union?

In that game, a knock on is always punished. But in different ways. If the referee deems it deliberate, a penalty is awarded. If he believes it accidental, then he gives a scrum with put-in to the aggrieved side.

So it could be in cases like Richards's. If we restored the indirect free kick for misdemeanours like his, when the arms are raised but not in a deliberate attempt to handle the ball, the link between crime and punishment would be returned much closer to the equilibrium. Had Liverpool been awarded an indirect free kick ten yards out they might still have taken the lead. It would have been fun to watch, anyhow. And at least City would not have been punished in a manner which goes against natural justice.

Also, since a player cannot be cautioned for an offence which merits only an indirect free kick, it would have spared us all the card-waving nonsense about whether Richards should have been sent off.

Of course, those who administer the laws of the game are too busy, according to my reffing mate, legislating against players who remove their shirts in celebration of a goal to worry about such things. Or working out ways in which to tie themselves in knots about retrospective video evidence. A proper return of the indirect free kick, though, could make the laws much more coherent.

Not that those gathering at Anfield (or indeed at Loftus Road) over the weekend will necessarily have approaches to handball at the forefront of their minds. This weekend, whether Micah Richards was hard done-by is not the most pressing football issue. Quite how we have reached a situation where an unfortunate bout of verbal diarrhoea suffered by a couple of players has escalated to the point of threatening to spark tribal warfare is an issue perhaps dealt with by sociology graduates looking for subjects for their PhD thesis.

If only handball were the issue over the next couple of days. How re-assuring it would be if controversy were restricted to debate about the return of the indirect free kick.

It would be encouraging to think that insanely whipped up animosity were put aside and we could all concentrate on what is going on down on the pitch. After all, what exactly are we getting all excited about here? Surely we can all agree that the mark of a decent society is one in which name-calling is recognised as uncivilised.

Defending it along tribal lines just seems bizarre. But somehow, with the banners prepared and chants rehearsed, I suspect what we will remember most about this weekend is the sourest atmosphere anyone will have experienced in a generation.

And pity the poor ref who is required to give a penalty when an indirect free kick would have been so much more just.

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