The tricky offside law

Putting all this hyperbolic controversy regarding the sexist remarks of Andy Gray and Richard Keys aside, we come to the offside law itself, my contention being that in its present form, nobody understands it.

How ironic that the ferocious storm in a tea cup which broke over the sexist remarks of two television commentators, who have lost their jobs in consequence, should have involved anything as arcane as the offside law. Caught “off camera” and somewhat mysteriously revealed by a so far unknown source, Andy Gray and Richard Keys of Sky B were heard jeering before a Wolves versus Liverpool game that the female linesman or lineswoman, the petite young Sian Massey, wouldn't be able to understand the offside law. Compounded with what you might describe as some silly saloon bar comments on Ms. Massey's physical attractions.

In the event, Keys and Gray would be left with abundant egg on their faces, Ms. Massey having just one difficult and crucial offside decision to make and making it with supreme accuracy, keeping her flag down when a Liverpool player was in fact onside by the narrowest of margins and was thus able to set up Liverpool's opening goal in a 3-0 win.

Andy Gray, of course, was once a prolific centre forward for Scotland and a series of major English clubs, among them Wolves and Everton. He is said to have been earning GBP1.9 million a year, and Keys half a million. With the aid of various technical appliances, Gray would diligently analyse movements in a match and had been doing so in Sky B for twenty years.

But now the heavens would open on him. Other coarse grained episodes were shown in TV clips, involving him and occasionally Keys. Gray's romantic life, to be euphemistic, was exposed in all its lurid squalor, though as one national columnist subsequently observed, however morally repugnant this might be it had nothing to do with his professional standing, and in any case, how many public figures could be similarly exposed?

So Gray was sacked immediately and Keys, after a somewhat embarrassing attempt on radio to exonerate himself, said that he could never work without Gray and resigned. It quickly became clear that the pair of them had been deeply resented by many of those who had worked with them for their apparent autocratic arrogance. But again, it's a situation endlessly replicated in a profusion of activities.

Putting all this hyperbolic controversy aside, we come to the offside law itself, my contention being that in its present form, nobody understands it, including, I would wager, Gray and Keys themselves. Some years ago, there was a fascinating and highly significant experiment by scientists in Spain's Valencia, whose upshot was indeed that the offside law was simply something which couldn't possibly be understood.

This because, these scientists concluded, no linesman, and by extension presumably no referee, could physically track the passage of the ball and be sure of a correct decision. The point being that according to the law the crucial moment comes when the ball is kicked. It is then that a player either is or isn't onside. Not when he actually receives the ball. Yet the experiment showed how all but impossible it was for a linesman first to perceive where the ball was kicked, then swivelling their gaze, to see where the attacking player was positioned at that very moment and not, it should be emphasised, when he actually took possession of the ball.

It should be pointed out that some years ago, a change in the law made it no easier to interpret. Originally, a player would be judged to be onside provided, when he moved for the kicked ball, he was behind the opposing defensive line, but now, he is onside if he is level with that line.

But the major complication which has arguably thrown the law into potential chaos, came just a few years ago, when a gloss was put on the question of “interfering with the play.” An expression found in the laws to dictate that a player was to be deemed onside if he was not, in fact, interfering with the play as that famous, Scottish Manager, Bill Shankly of Liverpool, was wont to say, “If he's not interfering with the play, then what's he doing on the field?”

But what are we to decide is “interference”? Some years ago, Leeds United, in line for the league title, were beaten at West Bromwich Albion by a decisive goal they swore should never have been given. When their defence was caught out as too square, Albion's Tony Brown ran half the length of the field to score the winner, while a team-mate, in a wide position on the left, was certainly offside technically, though there could be no indication that he was interfering with the play.

That, you might say, was a more or less clear cut case, but the gloss now put on the law puts such decisions much more delicately and even obscurely in the referee's hands: he is encouraged to decide that a player is not interfering with the play even if he is standing in an offside position in the very penalty box, provided he is not “seeking to gain an advantage.” Yet it could surely be argued that simply by being there, the player could be diverting the attention of the opposing goalkeeper. There are premiership managers who now confess they do not understand this new interpretation.

Yet the offside law has always been such a bone of contention. Till 1925 it decreed that an attacker was onside only if he had three opponents between him and the opposing goal line: meaning, in effect, two defenders and the goalkeeper. But wily old Bill M'Cracken, the Newcastle and Ireland full back with his team-mate Hudspeth (backs then operated in the middle) worked out a tactic whereby they moved up-field constantly to put opponents offside and to reduce many a game to farce. So the then all powerful Football Association decided almost casually — cheerfully ignoring the football world at large — on a trial game at the Arsenal stadium. One half would feature the current three-man offside law, the other would reduce the number of defenders required to two, meaning, basically, just one man and the goalkeeper.

On the basis of this almost insouciant experiment, the FA decided that the law be changed to two rather than three men with an instant and radical effect on football.