Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: New handball rules making life difficult for referees

Spot of trouble: Ballymena midfielder Ryan Harpur concedes a penalty as the ball strikes his arm
Spot of trouble: Ballymena midfielder Ryan Harpur concedes a penalty as the ball strikes his arm

By Billy Weir

Handball. No, not the game that you only ever see fleetingly being played very well by Scandinavians at the Olympics, this is the handball that is the thorniest of issues in football.

On Saturday past, Ballymena United and Crusaders played out yet another cracking Danske Bank Premiership encounter that resulted, fairly and squarely enough, in a 1-1 draw and a share of the spoils.

But the major talking point afterwards was referee Andrew Davey’s decision to penalise United midfielder Ryan Harpur for handling in the box.

A couple of weeks ago, the official came to prominence when, after ruling out a legitimate Carrick Rangers goal, he had the chance to look at a replay after the game and called Gers boss Niall Currie to, if you excuse the pun, hold his hands up.

Now, first things first. By the letter of the new law, Mr Davey got the decision correct. I think. But as I discovered by talking to those involved in the incident, this law that was supposed to cast light and lead the way forward for handling in the box has us all as much in the dark as we always were.

During the summer, the International Football Association Board devised new rules, it was no longer a case of the man (or woman) in black (or red, grey, blues of many hues or magic marker yellow) to judge whether it was deliberate or ball to hand.

Now they have to judge what they consider to be an ‘unnatural position’ when it comes to the culprit’s hand and arm movements. Is it any wonder that Mr Tickle has called time on his outfield career and now does nets?

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The IFAB law now says that a handball is awarded if a player makes his body bigger with his arm and it is automatically an offence if the arm is above shoulder height.

However, it also says there is ‘no handball offence if the ball deflects onto the arm, or if the ball hits a player who is using his arm for support’ and that’s where things get tricky and make it almost impossible for the ref.

The law reads as follows.

“A free kick or penalty will be awarded if: the ball touches a player’s hand/arm which has made their body unnaturally bigger.

“There is no offence if: the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from their own head/body/foot or the head/body/foot of another player who is close/near; the ball touches a player’s hand/arm which is close to their body and has not made their body unnaturally bigger; or if a player is falling and the ball touches their hand/arm when it is between their body and the ground to support the body (but not extended to make the body bigger)”. Phew...

When the incident happened a couple of minutes into the second-half at the Showgrounds, my first reaction was that the ball bounced up and hit Harpur’s arm, which was out to his side and he had no chance of getting out of the way but, by the letter of the law, it is a penalty. Probably.

Crusaders players and fans certainly felt that, although they were already pretty miffed as they felt they’d had a couple of decent shouts for a spot-kick turned away in the first-half.

The referee deliberated and then pointed to the spot, much to the annoyance of Harpur and his team-mates, although he did exact a measure of revenge later as he used his head, literally, to nod home an equaliser for the Sky Blues.

I’ve since had the chance to look at the incident on TV, as I am sure Mr Davey has too. Colin Coates attempts to send the ball back into the box, it balloons up in the air off Jude Winchester and is then flicked on by Jamie McGonigle and hits the helpless Harpur, who had no chance of getting out of the way.

It may be the letter of the law but it does look extremely harsh on Harpur. Mind you, having said that, perhaps there was a natural levelling out of things later on when Andy McGrory, whose hands looked in a lot less natural position, blocked a cross and this time Mr Davey raised his hands to wave away the protests.

So, what of the main protagonists in the affair? Here’s what they had to say about the incident and new law.

Ryan Harpur (Ballymena United midfielder): “I was disappointed to give away a penalty but at the time I didn’t think it was one. He (Andrew Davey) said my hand was in an ‘unnatural position’ but I’m not sure where they want us to put our hands. We can’t tie them to ourselves.”

Colin Coates (Crusaders captain): “It bounced up and hit him on the arm and it’s a difficult one for the referees. I claimed for the penalty at the time but, from a defender’s point of view, you’re in the hands of the gods, sometimes the ball will bounce up and hit and you and sometimes they won’t.

“Your heart is in your mouth until he makes the decision but it is what it is. There’s not much we can do about it as players, just try and keep your arms out of the way and that’s all you can do.

“To be fair to the referees, it’s a difficult one for them, it happens so quickly with the ball pinballing around the box and if it just bounces off someone’s arm it’s difficult to make that split-second decision and he has to make that decision.”

David Jeffrey (Ballymena United manager): “In terms of the decision itself, it’s so difficult for officials, it really, really is hard. The new rule was brought it to supposedly make it easier and yet I’m not so sure how that is. All we are going to ask for is consistency and if you get the same level of consistency with regards to decisions each week, then fair enough.”

Stephen Baxter (Crusaders manager): “We got one against us at Glenavon last year in the 93rd minute when it skimmed off Ronan Hale’s head and rolled down his arm and they gave a penalty. The ball was going away from the goal, it was going for a throw-in and a penalty was given.

“They say it’s an unnatural position. But it puts referees in a very difficult position. At the time when Saturday’s penalty was given I thought it didn’t really look like a penalty but then our lads said that the Ballymena player with his facial expression knew it was and I think Andy Davey picked up on that and gave it.

“There was a much bigger shout and in the first-half there were two penalties we were shouting for. You get some, some you don’t.”

Four men, four differing views with one constant — we are no further forward in solving the issue of handball than we ever were.

If anyone has a solution could they put their hands up? Oh, hang on, maybe not....

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