A couple of weeks ago I was at Reading FC’s training ground for an academy game, when I bumped into David Downs, Reading FC historian, Reading Post columnist and Welfare Officer for the Academy. David raised an incident that had occurred in the Reading v Birmingham game, when the play was stopped because of injury and told me what he thought should have happened to the injured player. Those of you who were at the match may remember the incident. After a fair tackle the ball broke free to a Reading player, which led to an attack well inside the Birmingham half. The Birmingham player involved in that tackle however, went down and stayed down. The referee allowed the play to continue for a short while before blowing up to stop the game, which of course also stopped the Reading attack. When the referee went back to the player, he got up, rubbed his head but refused the offer of treatment. The referee dropped the ball and a Birmingham player kicked it back to the Reading goalkeeper. Not an unfamiliar situation.
The law on injuries is relatively simple. ‘The referee stops the match if, in his opinion, a player is serious injured and ensures he is removed from the field of play but allows play to continue if the player, in his opinion is not seriously injured’. Here of course, is the crux of the matter. How does a referee judge what is serious and what is not? Although the Interpretations and Guidelines to Referees in the back of the book, devotes almost two pages to injuries, it does not/can not define what is serious. The guidelines however, say that the referee must ascertain from the injured player whether he wants treatment before calling on the physio. If he has treatment, the ruling is that he must leave the field of play. David Downs suggestion is that when a referee stops the game for a player whose reaction makes him believe he may be seriously injured, the player should go off, regardless of whether he has received treatment or not. This may deter players who go down or stay down in the hope the referee will stop play when it is favouring their opponents.
My own view of these situations is somewhat different and concerns the dropped ball rather than the injured player. What happens now, as happened in the Reading game is that one of the teams gets an unchallenged kick back into the opponent’s half, usually to their goalkeeper. But why? There is nothing in the law which requires this. The law on the dropped ball was changed last season to say that in these sorts of cases, a goal cannot be scored direct from a dropped ball. I asked Neale Barry, the FA representative on the technical committee of the International FA Board, whether that meant this was now their preferred action at dropped balls. He said that the Board still wanted the dropped ball to be challenged by player or players of both teams. So why don’t they tell this to referees in the professional game, when did you last see a contested drop ball? In my games, I ask if the teams if they want to contest any dropped ball, which nine times out of ten they agree to, particularly if they had possession of the ball when the game was stopped.
In the case of the Reading/Birmingham game, it would have meant that although Reading couldn’t guarantee to regain possession of the ball when it was dropped, at least they would still be well inside their opponent’s half, which was where they were when the game was stopped. Surely this is fairer and what the law was intended to produce.