Offside – how much nearer do you have to be?

Anyone who takes up refereeing knows, or will soon found out, that they will at times be subject to criticism and moaning from players, spectators and club officials. Of course it is difficult at local level to show that your decisions were in fact correct but at the higher levels of the game the matches will be videoed or televised and you can check the quality of your decisions. Many people feel that televised games are bad for referees but it does have the benefit of showing controversial decisions and that mostly referees get them right. What must be frustrating is when the television has proved the decision correct but it is still subject to criticism in public.

Take for instance the recent Manchester United v West Ham United game. With two minutes to go everyone at Old Trafford thought that West Ham’s Kevin Nolan had scored the equaliser, when he put a cross from fellow Hammer Carl Jenkinson, in the back of the net. Everyone that is except the assistant referee who flagged for offside. ‘He must have super-human vision,’ said Sam Allardyce, ‘he saw something that thousands of others didn’t’. It seems to me that it must be Allardyce who is empowered with super-human eyesight if he can see an offside better from his seat in the dug out at the half way line, than the official who is in line with play. ‘That was tight,’ said the commentator. It was tight but was it right?

I think that everyone knows what is meant by an ‘offside position’ but let’s just look at the wording of the Law. ‘A player is in an offside position if he is nearer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.’ But how much nearer does he have to be? A foot? a yard? an inch? The interpretation of this in the back of the Laws of the Game is quite explicit in its definition. ‘Nearer the opponents’ goal line’ means any part of a player’s head, body or feet nearer to the opponents’ goal line than the ball and the second-last opponent. Note that it doesn’t mention the hands or arms and the reason is that a player can’t score with his hands or arms.

If you look at the still photo from the television replay of this game, taken at the moment Jenkinson made his cross, you can see sticking out in front of the line of defenders, is the head and upper body of Nolan. That was the assistant referee’s view. Tight but right. Yes, Allardyce is correct in saying that the assistant referee saw something that thousands in the stadium didn’t. That’s for two reasons. One is that very few spectators or others were in the same position as the assistant referee, looking along the line. Secondly it was because he was the only one whose job it was to look for possible offsides and to indicate to the referee if one occurred. ‘He shouldn’t have made that decision,’ said Allardyce. Why not? Are officials to hold back from making correct decisions if they are tight, if they may be controversial, or because they might upset Sam Allardyce?  Thousands at the stadium may not have seen the offence but millions watching on television will have seen it. I’m sure that Allardyce would have also seen the replays before he gave his after the match interviews but he was still peddling his snide and sarcastic remarks about someone who had done his job. It is easy for Allardyce to pick on someone he knew that as things stand would not be able to reply. To be fair, he shouldn’t have made those comments.



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