Football referees make mistakes.
Hardly a controversial statement, is it? Contrary to public perception, referees are human and that means they don’t get everything right.
And to be fair to the officials (did I really just write that?) it is a difficult job. The game rages around them with the ball flying from one end of the pitch to the other. Off the ball incidents are common, split second judgement is required and there are no instant replays to consult.
Referees are asked to make judgement calls in the heat of the moment and with no more evidence than what they have seen with their own eyes. Did the player get the ball first? Was that handball deliberate? Was he inside or outside the penalty box? So we cannot realistically expect the referee to get every one of these calls correct.
But we should expect our referees to have a detailed knowledge of the Laws of the Game. That is their job after all.
Yesterday at Tynecastle, referee Craig Thompson made a fundamental error that exposed an ignorance of the very Laws that he is there to enforce.
Here’s what happened.
The ball was bouncing high on the edge of the penalty area. An attacker moved forward to head the ball towards goal. A defender tried to clear the ball with his foot but instead made contact with the attacker’s head.
The referee blew his whistle for a foul. When the game restarted he stood with his hand raised indicating that he had awarded an indirect free kick for dangerous play.
And that was not the correct decision.
Here is how the Laws define dangerous play:
“… any action that, while trying to play the ball, threatens injury to someone (including the player himself). It is committed with an opponent nearby and prevents the opponent from playing the ball for fear of injury.”
Sounds like a good description of the incident so far. But there is more.
“Playing in a dangerous manner involves no physical contact between the players. If there is physical contact, the action becomes an offence punishable with a direct free kick or penalty kick.”
Now we are at the heart of the matter. There clearly was physical contact and so a direct free kick should have been awarded. And that means Craig Thompson got it wrong.
Did he see the contact? Clearly he did. So why did he make the wrong call? The only explanation I can come up with is that he simply does not know the contents of the Laws of the Game.
Now I accept that is a very serious charge to make of a referee. It implies that he is incompetent. But what other reason could there be for his obvious error?
Last night I e-mailed Drew Herberston at the Scottish Football Association. His job title is Head of Referee Administration. I asked him if he would care to comment on the incident. To date I haven’t received a reply.
I realise that referees have a difficult job. I understand that errors of judgement are inevitable. But I cannot believe that it is acceptable for a referee to be ignorant of the Laws of the Game.
There is a lack of transparency in Scottish football. That has been shown in many different areas this season. So I would not be surprised to find that no official comment will ever be made on Thompson’s error.
But surely football fans deserve an explanation?