A good few years ago, 1994 to be exact, I wrote an article for a referee magazine, in which I described how I judged a tackle to be fair or a foul. I explained that if the player played the ball first it was fair but if he made contact with his opponent before playing the ball it was a foul. At the end of the 1994/95 season certain parts of Law 12 (Fouls and Misconduct) were rewritten. To my surprise and not I admit without a smug smile of satisfaction, I found that my wording had been used to describe a foul tackle. I know that the FA representative on the International FA Board read the magazine but whether it was a coincidence of course we shall never know. It was a simple enough solution, even when the opponent tripped over the player’s outstretched leg and fell heavily to the ground, if the player played the ball first it was perfectly fair. If however the player had to ‘play through’ his opponent to get to the ball, it was a foul.
But of course times change and the Laws of the Game have changed. ‘My’ little clause no longer appears but it still resonates in the minds of many people. Referees hear it time and time again, ‘I played the ball ref’ when they blow for a foul tackle. I didn’t see the QPR v Reading game so can’t comment on Kaspars Gorkss sending off but listening to Nigel Adkins last week, it seemed that their appeal was based on the fact that he played the ball. His appeal was successful but there are the instances when playing the ball will not necessarily absolve a player from punishment. To start with, players have learnt to follow through with their trailing leg, In other words the player plays the ball before making contact but then brings the player down with his other leg. Just a little difference between the opponent falling over the player’s leg or being brought down by the player but an important one.
Then there was the introduction into the Laws in 1997 of the terms, ‘careless, reckless and using excessive force’. So the Law now says, ‘a direct free kick is awarded if a player tackles an opponent in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force’. Careless you can equate with not playing the ball before making contact with the opponent, being a little late with the tackle. A foul but nothing too serious and a free kick is sufficient punishment. Reckless, is I always think self explanatory, what you might call a rash tackle but the Law describes it as when the player commits the tackle ‘with complete disregard to the danger or consequences for, his opponent’. As well as a free kick, it would be punished by a caution and yellow card. Excessive force means the player uses more force than is necessary and endangers the safety of his opponent. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are when players jump into tackles feet first and off the ground. Referees will be looking at the speed, the ferocity, you might say the brutality and the control the player had over his lunge. It won’t matter whether the ball is played or not or if indeed if the opponent was actually injured. It is the action that is the offence.
Therefore, when the review panel looked at Kaspars Gorkss sending off, it wasn’t whether he played the ball or not, that they would be looking at but whether his action was so fierce that it endangered the opponent’s safety. It must have been their judgement that it wasn’t.