By Jonathan Wilson
Imagine, if you can, that Ashley Young hadn't been offside in Manchester United's win over QPR on Sunday, that he wasn't sent spinning to earth by the slightest brush on the shoulder. Imagine that what happened was what appeared to have happened and that Shaun Derry, fractionally mistiming a tackle, had caught his ankle. A foul, yes; a penalty, yes; but a penalty and a red card? His team a man down and probably a goal down for something that wasn't cynical, that wasn't cheating, that wasn't wildly reckless, but was mistimed by a tiny fraction? It doesn't seem fair. The punishment seems disproportionate to the crime.
Under the legislation as it currently stands, referee Lee Mason (had it not been offside and had it actually been a foul) was right to send Derry off. The law says that a red card should be shown to a player "denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player's goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick." But is that fair?
When discussing laws, it's always useful to remember why they were introduced, rather than how they have come to be interpreted over time. The rule about showing red cards for so-called "professional fouls" came into being in 1982. Two years earlier, in the FA Cup final, West Ham's Paul Allen had been played through on goal, only to be brought down by Arsenal's Willie Young. The referee, George Courtenay, correctly under the laws of the time, awarded a free-kick, but took no further action.
There had been countless examples before, but this was in the game's showpiece event and seemed the epitome of cynicism. Allen was 18 and playing for a Second Division side; he was denied his moment of glory by a gnarly First Division centre-back: experience killed romance. There was a public outcry which coincided with general attempts in England to make the game more appealing as attendances fell. The Football Association responded in classically English fashion and appointed a subcommittee, chaired by Jimmy Hill and including Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton, to investigate. They came up with numerous proposals, all of which were rejected by the International Board. The Football League, though, pressed ahead, and made professional fouls, including deliberate handballs that prevented goals being scored, automatic red cards. Fifa adopted the regulation ahead of the 1990 World Cup. The crucial point, though, is that the law was designed to prevent premeditated fouls like Young's rather than to punish tackles that were fractionally misjudged.
There are those who suggest that if the foul happens in the box and a penalty is awarded then a goalscoring opportunity hasn't been denied and that therefore a red card shouldn't be shown. That, though, seems to add a needless level of moral complexity - and this is, at least, a moral issue. It's partly about recompense, about giving a side a goalscoring opportunity to replace the one lost by the foul, but it's also about punishing malefactors.
To make that change you'd have to weigh up which is worse: a penalty and a yellow card? Or a free-kick just outside the box and a red card? Logically, fouls nearer the goal should be punished more severely; that, after all, was why penalties were introduced in the first place. Or what of the most cynical fouls? A deliberate handball on the goalline in the manner of Luis Suarez against Ghana in the World Cup quarter-final for instance, or a player six yards out with an open goal who is scythed down: a penalty, only around three-quarters of which are scored, seems like a poor substitute.
Others have suggested the awarding of penalty goals in the most extreme cases, but that too is problematic. The Suarez case is clear, but what if he's been five yards off the line? Ten? When does a goal become inevitable? And besides, that doesn't address the problem the professional foul regulations were set up to address: that of a player being allowed a shot on goal. Nobody is saying Allen would necessarily have beaten Pat Jennings, but he deserved a chance to try. And, more than that, Young deserved punishment.
The law requires only minor modification: it should try to take into account intent, to recognise that there is a world of difference between a player lunging through an opponent to take him out and tapping his ankle having missed a tackle by an inch. It wouldn't be easy and there'd be grey areas, but at least the most egregiously unfair examples would be stamped out. Take, for example, Harry Kewell's handball on the line in Australia's draw against Ghana at the World Cup. It probably was a foul - although even that is a grey area - but his offence was failing to get his arm out of the way rather than deliberately blocking the ball as Suarez later would. Once the referee Roberto Rosetti had given the penalty, though, he had no option but to show a red card. Kewell was careless; Suarez cynical: should the offences really merit the same punishment?
It's with goalkeepers that the present legislation seems most unfair. A forward runs through on goal; the keeper goes down, spreading himself as all keepers do; the forward tries to go round him. If the keeper touches the ball, he's a hero and the goal is prevented. If he misses it by a millimetre and catches the forward, it's a penalty and a red card. The dividing line is too fine; the extremes too great. There are examples of goalkeepers acting cynically and deliberately pulling forwards down - the Brazilian goalkeeper Carlos on France's Bruno Bellone in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, for instance - but often they have made an honest attempt for the ball and missed by a tiny margin.
Again, the issue is not clear-cut. In Liverpool's 3-2 win over Blackburn on Tuesday for instance, Junior Hoilett, played in by Jon Flanagan's underhit backpass, sidestepped Alexander Doni and then tumbled over the goalkeeper. A clear penalty, yes. But a red card? Well, perhaps Doni was clumsy; perhaps he was reckless in having put his body in that position and thus culpable, but that is a call a referee should be trusted to make, rather than reaching for the red card as a matter of course.
In March 2009, in a game between Liverpool and Aston Villa, Fernando Torres ran through on Brad Friedel, and fell over the keeper, who had curled into a ball in an attempt to get out of the way; Friedel was sent off, but the red card was overturned. That was a clear example of the authorities accepting a penalty had to be given, but that the goalkeeper had not acted cynically.
If sense could be applied in that instance, why can it not be applied in other, albeit less clear-cut, cases? The law shouldn't be an inflexible distributor of identical punishments, but should return to its roots and try to do what it set out to do: stopping cheating.