One of the difficult decisions a referee faces, is when two players from opposite sides tackle simultaneously for the same ball, particularly if one of the players becomes injured. Was it just a collision or was there a foul and if so, which player committed it? This is heightened when the ball they are going for, is a high one.
I was reminded of this at the Reading game against Middlesbrough when Reading’s American midfielder Danny Williams clashed with the Boro’s skipper Grant Leadbitter, as they challenged for a ball that was well above waist height. Williams was injured, which upset the Reading players who remonstrated with the referee. When the free kick was given against Leadbitter, that angered not only the Middlesbrough players but their coaches in the dig-out who were quickly on their feet protesting.
A still photograph on the Reading FC website however gave some clue to the referee’s decision. It shows both players with their legs outstretched. Presumably Williams has already played the ball and Leadbitter’s foot is shown to have caught him just above the ankle.
Now I’m sure that Leadbitter protested that he had tried to play the ball because this is normally what players say and of course in the majority of times this is true. As one player said to me last week after I penalised him for a late tackle, ‘I tried to play the ball, what am I supposed to do, not make the tackle and leave it to him?’ The point is that it is not the player’s intention that counts; it is what he ends up actually doing.
Until 1995 the referee would probably not have awarded a free kick unless he thought Leadbitter had intended to foul Williams. In the changes to the Laws in that year, intent was removed from the ten direct free kick offences, except for handball. Today the referee does not base his decision on the intention of the player, but on the consequences of his actions.