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Apr 8, 2014

Taylor-made refereeing

Ever keen to go against the flow -- it’s been a problem for me since I was a child, so blame my mother -- I’m not at all disappointed to see the debate going on over the standard of refereeing displayed at last weekend’s game against Liverpool at Upton Park.

In the asinine world of 21st century Premier League football, where the top five teams are virtually decided before a ball is kicked and the only "interest" -- and I use the term loosely -- is in what order they eventually finish, the continuing arguments about what the referee and his colleagues see or don’t see is often the only talking point.

Rather than berate Anthony Taylor for his decisions, we should be lauding him for keeping us all guessing as to what is likely to happen on the pitch once the whistle blows. And before the Referees' Union gets all huffy here and starts telling us we don’t know the rules -- we know we don’t know, that’s the fun in it -- I’m not here to haul Taylor over the coals, but rather sympathise with some of the issues the modern game officials face.

- Video: Allardyce calls for ref re-think - Thorne: Hammers pay the penalty

I mean, intentional handball in the area resulting in a penalty is surely the most basic of rules and one that kids in the park can be seen to scream from an early age. It seems incredible to me that a player at the top of his game would deliberately touch the ball knowing his team would then have to face Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard from 12 yards, but the slight movement of hand to ball seems to occur more and more.

The increase in this can be marked by the frequent sight of defenders funnelling back into the area with their arms behind their back -- surely an indication that there has been some subtle change somewhere. My guess is that there’s always been an instinct to move the hand or arm; after all, the limb has always been used for balance and elevation, but the microseconds it takes for a top sportsman to realise that would be a mistake and move it away has been lost by the technological advances in the ball design.

With regard to the foul being given by an official against a player who touches the ball but follows through to tackle an opponent, there is an urban myth attached that seems burned into the minds of many. Is there ever a week when we don’t see a player making that circular motion with his hands, indicating that it couldn’t have been a foul as they touched the ball first? The rules of the game say nothing about this, though. When Hammers keeper Adrian came out to stop John Flanagan’s run, he got a first touch, but he didn’t significantly alter the course of the ball, clattering into the attacker on movement alone and sending him sprawling.

Under current rules regarding the "second phase," referee Taylor decided the forward movement was a foul, as it stopped the attacking player from staying on his feet and getting another touch of the ball, and it seems this decision has been backed by many retired officials.

Inevitably this does raise other questions about the rules and their interpretation. Was Flanagan or another Liverpool player really able to take advantage had the "secondary" movement not occurred?

Secondly -- if the only way Adrian could have stopped conceding a penalty was to stay on his feet, allow Flanagan to get a shot in and hope to clear it, doesn’t this then effectively make football a non-contact sport? This one's tricky: on one hand, the problem could be solved by making "first contact" an actual rule, but what would you then do with a player getting an obvious touch first but breaking an opponent’s leg on follow-through?

Frankly, I don’t see an obvious answer to this bar use of common sense that I’m sure Anthony Taylor will almost certainly say he applied anyway. The last talking point is surely the easiest to solve and the least contentious -- unless, of course, you’re the FIFA president. The third referee needs to be away from the touchline and looking at a TV.

It’s true West Ham would have had the goal they did score against Liverpool ruled out, but I can think of at least one occasion this season where a point would have been gained elsewhere had this been employed.

It’s nonsense when a referee is talking to a linesman about what did or didn’t occur when the incident is being played (illegally, admittedly) on a big screen behind them. As we saw last weekend in the Fulham match, the new goal line technology can show a ball two centimetres on the line, so why not use that same technology to further benefit the game?

Imagine a referee explaining over the Tannoy why Andy Carroll’s goal had been ruled out, then add why he decided to give a penalty later. Top entertainment -- and I say this as someone who would have suffered from the decisions.

If only someone had the time and money to replay every Premier League game this season with the hindsight of technology, I wonder how the league table would look? In a sport that has evolved to the point where contentious issues are often the only uncertainty, it would be a wonderful paradox to actually find Anthony Taylor as some sort of championing hero.