A few questions have been raised about a slightly unusual incident that occurred last week in the Burnley v Crystal Palace game. The ball was running towards the touchline, half way inside the Palace half and was being pursued by two opposing players. Joel Ward of Palace was trying to shield the ball out of play, with Scott Arnfield of Burnley close behind him. Arnfield managed to get a foot to the ball, keeping it in play but both players carried on tangling with one another over the touch line and off the pitch. In a desperate attempt to get away, Arnfield seemed to pull Ward out of the way and onto the ground. He then went on to play the ball, putting in an excellent cross for the much praised Danny Ings to score. Crystal Palace’s newly installed manager, Alan Pardew was adamant that the goal shouldn’t have been allowed because he felt the referee should have penalised Arnfield. This gives rise to two questions, was it a foul and if it was, how would the referee restart play considering both players were off the field of play when it took place?
Shielding of the ball does often lead to confrontation between the players involved and I feel that my colleagues in the higher realms of the game sometimes get it wrong. The Law says ‘An indirect free kick shall be awarded, if in the opinion of the referee, a player, impedes the progress of an opponent,’ However it does clarify this by saying, ‘this means moving in the path of the opponent to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction of an opponent (and here comes the crunch) when the ball is not within playing distance of either player.’ Just to make it clear it says that, ‘Shielding the ball is permitted.’ That is to say, a player placing himself between an opponent and the ball for tactical reasons has not committed an offence, providing the ball is kept within playing distance.
There is another important codicil to this law. The player shielding the ball must not make physical contact by using his arms or his body to hold off the opponent, even if the ball is within playing distance. It can be difficult sometimes to discern whether the player shielding the ball has backed into his follower or has been run into by the opponent. When letting the ball run out over the goal line in particular, you often see the shielding player back into his follower but the referee takes the ‘diplomatic’ line and favours the defender.
In the Burnley v Palace game, I thought the defender was still trying to hold off the Burnley player although the ball was out of reach and the only way to get past him was by use of the arms. Two wrongs don’t make a right they say, but in this instance, I feel the referee did the right thing to allow play to continue. But suppose the referee had concluded a foul had been committed and stopped the game, how would he have restarted it? The Laws say that a foul, for which a free kick would be awarded, can only be committed on the field of play. So no free kick but referee can still stop the game and take any action necessary. But how to restart? Again the law has it covered. If an offence is committed off the field of play, as Alan Pardew suggested happened at Burnley, whilst the ball remains in play, the game when stopped is restarted by a dropped ball where the ball was, when the referee stopped play. Not much of a penalty for the offender but one of those little oddities that referees have to remember.