The biggest talking point in the Arsenal v Sunderland match earlier this month was not Arsenal’s three goals but the non-goal of Sunderland. If you remember it, Bacary Sagna of Arsenal was pulling and holding Jazy Altidore of Sunderland as they were following the ball towards the Arsenal penalty area. Finally Altidore broke away from Sagna’s clutches and with only the Arsenal goalkeeper to beat, put the ball in the Arsenal net for what seemed like the equalizing goal. However, unknown to most people, referee Martin Atkinson, had already blown his whistle for Sagna’s foul on Altidore. The volatile Paolo Di Canio, still then the Sunderland manager, made such a fuss because the referee didn’t play the advantage that he finished in the stand. Alan Shearer, reviewing it on Match of the Day, said the referee must allow the advantage.
The Law might seem to agree with him for under the powers and duties of the referee it says, ‘The referee allows play to continue, when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from such an advantage and if the anticipated advantage does not ensue, penalises the original offence’ But under Interpretations and Guidelines to referees, we are told the ‘The referee MAY play advantage whenever an infringement or offence occurs. So it is a discretionary action by the referee and there are circumstances that he has to take into consideration. One of these is the severity of the offence. If for instance the infringement warrants a red card, the referee is advised that he must stop play and send the player off unless there is a subsequent opportunity to score. There is a classic case where the referee allowed play to continue, because the team offended against retained control of the ball in their opponents half. However they subsequently lost the ball and it was returned up field by the opposing side and the player who should have been sent off scored. There was confusion all round when the goal was allowed but the scorer was shown the red card. If the advantage doesn’t come off the referee can stop play and penalise the original offence but he can only allow play to continue for a few seconds before calling play back.
The referee also has to take into consideration the position where the offence was committed, the nearer the opponents goal the more effective the advantage is obviously likely to be. In my game last week I blew for a foul committed by the attacking team in their opponent’s penalty area but the ball bounced clear to a defender. ‘What about the advantage,’ he cried but the chances of an immediate promising attack from that position are most unlikely. Another point referees are told to take into consideration is the atmosphere of the game. Referees will often suspend playing advantage if there is a lot of ill feeling or fouling in the match or a likelihood of retaliation.
Looking at the replay of the Arsenal/Sunderland match it shows Martin Atkinson allowing the pulling and holding to go on for a short while, then blowing his whistle just before Altidore broke free. He probably wished he had waited a little longer but once he had blown his whistle he had to stand by it. I can’t speak for him but often when players get into these sorts of tangles one of them, in aggravation, tries to break free by lashing out at his opponent. It then becomes a shame when the player being fouled is the one sent off. Perhaps this is what Atkinson was trying to prevent. Referees love it when an advantage goes well and a goal results and when a referee blows too quickly, it is usually with the best intentions.