When Leicester were awarded their third penalty of the match against Manchester City on Sunday it was the 20th spot kick in the 25th Premier League game this season. If that ratio continues, there will be 304 penalties this season and, considering that the most in a Premier League season to date stands at 106, that is a significant increase. Amongst those 20 penalties, there have been six for handball compared to none at the same stage of last season and many of those have attracted the ire of players, managers and commentators alike, with many of those contentious decisions related to handball infringements.
According to highly respected football journalist Alan Biggs, the proliferation of penalties this season is not down to a change in the rules but the interpretation. “The new handball law was introduced in 2018,” Biggs says. “The law itself has not changed this season but the IFAB [football’s international lawmakers] felt the Premier League were out of step with the rest of the football world so they needed to be dragged into line, with the PGMOL [English referees’ body] urged to follow a stricter adherence to the letter of the law.”
Biggs, who helped set up the You Are the Ref site in collaboration with Keith Hackett and is still in regular touch with the former FIFA official, is scathing about this new interpretation. “It’s an utter nonsense,” he says. “You didn’t have to be a Nostradamus to predict what would happen once Mike Riley [head of PGMOL] caved in to the IFAB.” And indeed over the last few weeks things have come to a head. There was the Lindelof handball in their game against Palace, which sent Gary Neville into a predictable spiral of rage: “Ayew scoops it up against Lindelof’s arm – I’ll be absolutely amazed, I’d be devastated if I had a penalty given against me for that. His arm’s moved with his running action. I thought that the Leeds one last week at Anfield was nonsense and I think this one is equally so.”
If Neville’s rant was unsurprising, the barely concealed fury of a normally mild-mannered 73 year-old the following week was a turn-up for the books. This time it was Palace who felt aggrieved and Roy Hodgson was as close to apoplectic as ever during his 44-year coaching career when commenting on the penalty given against Joel Ward in the game against Everton. “It’s completely unacceptable. It’s destroying my enjoyment of the game of football,” said Hodgson. “I can’t understand how everyone in the game – the Premier League, referees, managers and coaches – have allowed this rule to come into operation. I don’t want to profit from it or lose from it.”
Hodgson added: “I do not believe in the rule. People in football find it hard to accept. The referee doesn’t think it is handball either. He doesn’t want to give it but has to, because that’s what he is told to do.” Hodgson was not alone in his contempt, Ward himself was similarly angry and bemused by the decision. Both Clive Tyldesley and Ally McCoist, who were commentating on the match for Amazon Prime, shared the overriding sense of disbelief. When the handball law was displayed on screen and they went through it line by line the commentator and pundit could not fathom how Ward had transgressed.
The following day Eric Dier became the latest victim of this stricter enforcement when adjudged to have committed a handball offence even though he had no sight of the ball as it was behind his back before hitting his outstretched arm. This incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back and PGMOL decided it was time to fight back as Biggs points out: “So they have now instructed referees to soften their approach within the spirit of the game.” Moving forward, the Lindelof and Ward incidents would no longer be considered to be penalties, although Dier’s would because “the hand arm was above/beyond shoulder level.”
According to Biggs, the blame for the confusion and controversy lies with not only the power game between IFAB and PGMOL but also at one man’s door. “If you check the wording of the handball law, the deliberate element is still there but it is muddied by the surrounding verbal diarrhoea from IFAB’s technical director, David Elleray.” Elleray has been in charge of the sport’s laws since the start of the 2016/17 season and has overseen 178 law changes in those four years, but those relevant to handball are opaque. “I know of refs who have read it once,” Biggs says. “Then twice and finally for a third time and they admit to me that they don’t understand the handball law anymore. But what would you expect from an ex-public school teacher who probably never played the game?”