Can a Referee Delay Substitutions Being Made?

Since Reading’s game against Norwich City, several fans have asked me if the referee made a mistake in allowing the Norwich goal to stand. It certainly upset the Reading players. It wasn’t the goal itself, but the circumstances leading up to it. The situation was that Reading’s new manager, Steve Clarke, wanted to make a double substitution and the two substitutes were lined up at the half way line, as the law decrees. The fourth official stood alongside with his board waiting for play to stop before he held it up to show which players were coming off and on.

What slightly confused the issue was that Reading’s Garath McCleary had gone down injured and the ball went out for a throw-in to Norwich. McCleary needed lengthy treatment and the fourth official didn’t show the board, presumably in case McCleary had to come off which might have changed Reading’s planned substitutions. As it was McCleary hobbled off the field and the referee unexpectedly gave the signal for the throw-in to be taken. The Reading players, a man short, were standing waiting for the substitutions to be made. It was some good few seconds before they realised that play was going to carry on, by which time Norwich had swept past their defenders and put the ball in the back of the Reading net. What everyone wanted to know is why the referee didn’t wait for the substitutions to take place before restarting play? Did he have the power under the Laws of the Game, some asked me, to refuse to allow the substitutions?

I should start by saying that the first substitution requirement in the Laws is that the referee must be informed when a team wishes to make a substitution. In local football, the team coach/manager will probably call out to the referee when there is a stoppage in play. Further up the footballing pyramid he will tell the assistant referee, which is what it actually says should happen in the Laws of the Game, and he will give the special flag signal to the referee when play next stops. At the higher professional level of course there is always a fourth official, who the club will tell when a substitution is required and he will inform the referee. Now that the officials are all wired up he doesn’t have to give a signal; but can tell the referee over his radio.

What we don’t know is whether the fourth official on that day did inform the referee that a substitution was waiting to be made. Perhaps he was distracted by the McCleary injury and possible ramifications. Or did he think that two players standing alongside him at the edge of the pitch would in itself be enough indication of what was expected?  Of course it may be that told the referee, who had forgotten it after the long wait, whilst McCleary was treated. When McCleary finally hobbled off the referee wouldn’t have known whether or not he would be returning and in accordance to the recognised procedure would restart with him off the field, until after the game was in progress. Players being substituted are not obliged to leave at the half way line, so McCleary leaving further along the touch line would not have given him any clue.

The Law does allow a referee to refuse to proceed with a substitution under certain circumstances, for example if the substitute is not ready to come on. I can’t see that in this instance there was any reason to do that. My opinion is that the referee’s hadn’t deliberately refused the substitutions, but for whatever reason, he just wasn’t aware that they were wanted. My guess however, is that afterwards he would have wished that he had been. No referee wishes to create unnecessary controversy.

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