The first question I was asked after Reading’s inglorious failing to score the winning goal against a much depleted Yeovil side, and one that I have been asked many times since, is how many players does a team have to be reduced to before the referee abandons the match? On the radio after the game, I heard the BBC Radio Berkshire commentator saying that if Yeovil has lost one more player the referee would have abandoned the game and it reminded me of a cup game where I was running the line some years ago. The referee had sent off three players from one side, the same as Yeovil had lost, and I overheard two players of the depleted team, who were losing, say to one another, if we can get one more player sent off, the game will be abandoned and we will get a replay. Neither the commentator nor the two players were correct. Let’s look at Law 3 The Number of Players. Excluding all the references to substitutes, the Law is amazingly short and basic. ‘A match is played by two teams, each consisting of not more than eleven players, one of whom must be a goalkeeper. A match may not start if either team consists of fewer than seven players.’
So the law says a team may not START with six or fewer players but what about the minimum number of players for a match to CONTINUE? This is not actually mentioned on the Laws of the Game. However, as I have mentioned many times, to get the true picture you have to look in the back of the book. Here you will find another four pages of interpretations, instructions and guidance on Law 3. These tell us that the minimum number of players for a game to be allowed to continue is left to the discretion of member associations. BUT the International FA Board, who make the Law, is of the opinion that it should also be abandoned if a team go below seven players. This is the number that the FA set for matches in England and as far as I know all other associations around the world also adopt. To sum it up, Yeovil would have had to gone down to six or fewer for the game to be called off.
There are a couple of other pieces of advice given to referees on this subject. If a player should walk off the pitch, that is to say leave the game when his team is down to seven, the referee would not immediately abandon the game but wait until the ball next goes out of play. The other point is what happens if one of the seven players becomes injured and has to leave the field of play? Here the referee would wait to see the extent of the injury. In other words, if the injured player was fit to resume playing after treatment then the game would continue but if not the referee would abandon the game.
This leads me to another question that I have been asked frequently in the last few days, and it is one that every referee gets if he abandons a match for any reason. What happens to the game, is it replayed or does the score at the abandonment stand? The advice given to new referees is to say ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the competition’. This is because under Law 7, Duration of the Match it says, ‘An abandoned match is replayed unless the competition rules provide otherwise’. Competition rules vary greatly, and some pass the decision on to its management committee to decide on the circumstances of each abandonment, so don’t always bank on a replay.