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Where is your arm right now? Would you say it’s in a natural position? Isn’t it always in a natural position? Is your natural position that same as my natural position?
And if you’ve just wrestled with Davinson Sánchez for a few seconds before he volleys the ball from point blank range vaguely near you, where naturally would you put your arm? This is a question for Ashley Barnes’s subconscious – or it’s a question that Ashley Barnes’s subconscious got wrong last Sunday. It chose … poorly. It was not the holy grail of natural positions – unless of course you think he intentionally put his arm in that spot. It is his brain I suppose.
Now, by the letter of the law – or in other words, just the law – the Burnley striker conceded a penalty that could have a decisive effect at the bottom of the Premier League for them and for Spurs’ Champions League push at the top, ignoring of course the fact that it all evens itself over the course of a season.
But did Barnes make himself unnaturally bigger? Or just naturally bigger? Or naturally the same size but in a slightly different shape? Is Ashley Barnes’s surface area a constant or is it constantly changing - and how unnatural can it be?
The actual law states: “A player is considered to have made their body unnaturally bigger when the position of their hand/arm is not a consequence of, or justifiable by, the player’s body movement for that specific situation.”
The interpretation seems to be judged not by people who’ve never played the game, but by people who have never moved about at all. Try wrestling a large Colombian man for a bit and see where your hands go.
We have got to a stage where barely any players, no one in the stadium, at home – not even the most partisan Spurs fan – even noticed the handball, until the now traditional confirmation walk to the monitor; charades “TV show” sign (wish they’d do “Song” one time); theatrical point to the spot.
There are lots of ways to easily upset football fans these days, and suggesting changing the laws of the game is a really easy one. Someone will ring you up and yell IF IT AIN’T BROKE DON’T FIX IT and then call you a melt or a dry lunch or something.
But the laws aren’t perfect. Surely it’s worth a brainstorm/ideas lounge/thought carousel on the subject. Imagine we’re team Geronimo sitting on bean bags in the early stages of The Apprentice. One of us has a whiteboard and a Sharpie. Karren Brady is just over there. There’s no such thing as a bad idea.
Let’s begin then with handball. Until 1912 the goalkeeper could handle the ball anywhere in their own half. It makes you wonder what those early FA Cup games were like. No back pass rule and keepers just picking it up whenever they liked.
It’s sad to think that kids in the playground can’t just shout “ACCIDENTAL! BALL TO HAND!” but instead are trying to work out where the armpit begins and ends.
So idea one. Let’s not go back to 1911, but just reintroduce deliberate handball only, unless you’re denying a goal. Stick it on the whiteboard.
Next. Let me (re)introduce the Paul Doyle law. The former Guardian journalist’s idea that a penalty is awarded for denying a goal scoring opportunity anywhere on the pitch. You remember that foul by Ole Gunnar Solskjær near the half way line. Award a penalty and book the player. Keep 11 v 11.
And crucially, don’t give a spot kick for every foul in the box. There are too many penalties. If a player doesn’t have a shot on, and is pushed or clipped, then it’s just a free-kick. The first example that springs to mind is a Liverpool penalty in 2020 at the London Stadium. Arthur Masuaku kicked Mo Salah’s foot as he went away from goal. Under the Paul Doyle law that’s a free-kick inside the box. And football would benefit from more of those.
Sin-bins for professional fouls. Think Chiellini yanking Saka’s collar in the Euros. Stopping the play. No attempt to get the ball. Ten minutes in the bin. Better or worse for the game?
Allow VAR to give bookings. Allow refs to book and send players off retrospectively. Allow yellow cards to be appealed. Encourage officials to book players for diving even if they’re fouled. Beckham clips Simeone. Red card. Simeone still dives. Book him (and book him for the tackle from behind – we’re going to win the ’98 World Cup!)
Let’s think about heading the ball. At some point in the future – 20, 50 or 100 years – no one will believe that players ever used their heads. So let’s see what it looks like. Let’s consider phasing it out. Start with no heading apart from attempts at goal/denying attempts at goal ie from crosses. You can still score - but those booming headers from goal kicks and clearances will end. “LET IT BOUNCE” will be the new scream from Sunday League pitches up and down the country.
And let’s try all these changes during the Community Shield. High-profile, but doesn’t matter. Some may work, some may not. Interpretation will always be part of it. But it is already.
The task ends. Have we improved football? Hand your workings to Lady Brady. Go to the boardroom. Listen to Lord Sugar’s jokes. Be told not to fix it because it ain’t broke. Sit in that miserable cafe. Get fired. Try not to look at the comments.