Thursday, 10 November 2016

The challenges of a split-second penalty call

Game 24, 2016-17

City Cup, quarter-final. I'm standing on the end line in my usual position for a corner kick, about 35 minutes in. It's 0-0. The corner comes to the home team's defender directly in front of me, just ahead of the near post. He tries to clear first time but, because it's a wet evening, the ball slices off his right foot and hits his arm. It bounces back down favourably for him and he clears.

Cup football under floodlights - otherwise
known as 'paradise' (pic: Referee Tales)
"Penalty!" scream several players on the away team. Instinctively, I'd raised the whistle to my lips as the ball hit his hand, but in that split second I decide against blowing. "No intent!" I yell and start to follow the game upfield. There's an immediate foul committed against the home team as it tries to quickly break, and in the ensuing pause the away team further protests about the non-call.

Their main lobbying point is not that it was a clear penalty, but that I'd raised my whistle to my lips. To them, that meant I was already on the way to making the decision in their favour. To me, it was just a preparatory move in case I made the handball call. I do it a handful of times every game, largely unnoticed - it's the sound of the whistle players react to, not your body language.

In my pre-reffing years I used to sometimes see officials do the same, and it irked me too. To an observer, it's hard to understand that a referee can see a possible foul one second but then change
their mind the next. That's not the mental process, though - as described above, we're still thinking it through. At the same time, I can fully understand why the away team was aggrieved.

The non-decision has repercussions for the next few minutes. I blow for a blatant foul throw (one foot high in the air) against an away team player and he remonstrates, "You're blowing for that and you didn't give us the penalty?" Logically, he might know that the two incidents are not related, but in this moment it's all about the perceived injustice of my overall decision-making. At half-time, I explain the penalty call to their captain. By this time they're fairly good-natured about it, even if they still disagree with the call and are still banging on about the fact that I'd had the whistle on my tongue.

A corner flag, recently
(pic: Referee Tales)
Just after half-time, they go 1-0 down. The away team is from a superior league, and they pound the home team's goal for the rest of the match. The home team, egged on by around 50 partisan fans in the increasingly heavy rain, defend like bastards and almost snatch a second on a couple of counter-attacks. Their goalkeeper makes one astonishing save from a deflected shot, leaping high to his right to turn the effort over the bar - involuntarily, I jump with him and under my breath emit a low 'Whoo!" of admiration (yes, you're right, refs are not supposed to do that kind of thing).

There's the obligatory flash point and shoving match after 75 minutes, with spectators involved too. I send them all back to stand behind the fence (where they should have been anyway) and book the two miscreants. Aside from that and the non-penalty call, it's one long, glorious evening of thrilling, floodlit, end-to-end cup football in the almost freezing rain on a slippery grass pitch. My watch tells me I ran 5.2 miles, the longest distance I've ever measured over 90 minutes. The home team hangs on and makes it to the semi-final, and there is general delight in front of the club house.

As I always claim that I learn something new from every game, here's the obvious lesson: in that brief second when you're analysing a possible penalty, try not to raise your whistle to your lips. Even though the players should be watching the ball and not you, it's not going to do you any favours if you decide to play on. Although of course if you decide it is a penalty but you wait too long to blow, the other side might think you were influenced by the loud appeals of the attacking team...

Final score: 1-0 (four yellow cards)

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  1. I love these posts. I too have had this problem of players seeing a whistle on my lips and me changing my mind at last second. They often have a moan about it. Makes me realise how often they look at me during a match for my reaction.

  2. Thanks, Chris. Maybe a response of, "Play to the whistle - watch the ball, not me," might shut them up quickly enough.