Issue #58 On how the sending off of goalkeepers is a punishment without proportion

As told by Michael Wood

Imagine, if you will dear reader, a different scene on Saturday when Bradford City lost to Rochdale when Jordan Pickford was sent off for denying Matt Done a goal or goal scoring opportunity which had almost certainly gone. Imagine Done more central, no defenders, and Pickford taking the man squarely and cleanly.

Imagine that Pickford had unequivocally denied Rochdale a goal or goal scoring opportunity. The Referee would have sent Pickford off with the same haste and City would have faced the same situation of facing a penalty kick and playing a game with ten men.

Even though in this hypothetical situation Pickford would have been guilty of the offence the punishment given would still have been too harsh. The sending off of a goalkeeper for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity is a disproportionate punishment for the offence and does not offer recompense for the offended against team.

Cold goalkeepers

In no other situation in football are you required to make a substitution in haste. If a player is injured you can withdraw him and bring on a replacement when that replacement is warmed up. You can take as long as you want to do this.

This includes goalkeeping changes which often result in close to minutes injury time rather than goalkeeper sendings off which are completed with such speed that the replacement keeper does not have the time to prepare and he is not in the flow of the game.

If a defender is sent off for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity then the goalkeeper is warm when the penalty happens, if the goalkeeper is replaced he is cold. Why is the team punished extra by having a cold goalkeeper because of the identity of the sent off player?

And what about the risks of demanding a cold player come straight into action? What about when the cold goalkeeper pulls a muscle diving for the penalty? Is that to be an additional part of the punishment?

In no other situation is a player expected to play cold.

The ten men

Whilst considering the concept of additional punishment the penalty not considered reward enough for a denial of a goal or goal scoring opportunity offence and so the team must play with ten players for a spell of time which is decided by when the offence occurred.

If we put Pickford’s hypothetical offence in the last minute of a game where then the punishment is a penalty and playing a minute or two with ten men. If we put it in the first minute minute of a game then the penalty is faced but the team have to play with ten men for a full 89 minutes. What about a keeper sent off after fifty eight minutes in a final already lost?

It is impossible to say that those three situations represent the fair punishments. To play without a man for almost a full game is clearly a more harsh punishment to be missing a man for injury time.

Of course there is an argument that says that goals earlier in the games are more formative of the match and thus important than goals later in the game and so a player denying a goal or goal scoring should be punished more severely if he does it early in the game than late. Try telling that Asamoah Gyan and his Ghana teammates.

Reducing an opposition team to one fewer men is only sometime a punishment. For City at Wembley against Swansea City Matt Duke’s sending off was neither here nor there – the game was gone – but had the score been been 3-0 to the Bantams then it would have obviously had a different importance and be more of a punishment.

The formation

A football manager’s role on match days is to assess the ebb and flow of games and respond accordingly. When a manager sees a goalkeeper sent off for an incident that results in a penalty kick and he must make a decision on who to remove to bring on a replacement before the penalty is taken.

But he cannot make that decision. He does not have a vital piece of information. He does not know if the game is ebbing or flowing? He does not know what is going to happen from the penalty.

If the game is in the balance – say 0-0 – and he takes off a defensive player he assumes that the penalty will be scored and he will chase the game for an equaliser. If he takes of an attacking player and needs to score he is a man shy in achieving that goal. If the penalty kick is missed then his plans have to be rethought.

Again at no other point in football is punishment so disproportionate. If any other player is sent off the manager is allowed the fullness of time to decide who to remove and how to change his formation in knowledge of the score of the game.

Only in this specific instance does the manager have to make a decision before the game can continue knowing that the next action in the game has a great chance of rendering his decision wrong.

If the game is 0-0, and a player is sent off for a bad tackle in midfield the manager can decide if he will move defensively to try maintain a draw or press on and try win. If a defender is sent off for the denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity then the manage is able to make the decision as to a replacement knowing if any resulting penalty has been scored.

Why should the goalkeeper being sent off be given such a special and specifically disproportionate set of punishments which exceed the punishment given to a team when a defender commits the same offence?

What Phil Parkinson should have done against Rochdale

Ten minutes into the game and Matt Done has done what he had done and Jordan Pickford has been sent off. The first thing Phil Parkinson should do is to send Matt Williams to warm up but rather than removing Andy Halliday Parkinson should have given a green shirt to whichever of his players still on the field has even the slightest ability between the sticks.

Jon Stead is tall and agile. Stead gets the gloves and goes in goal while Williams warms up.

Rochdale take the penalty. Penalties are most often scored regardless of the quality of the goalkeeper.

85% of penalties which are on target go into the goal. 94% of the time keepers move one way or the other and when that way is the right way they have a 40% chance of saving the ball hit in that direction but when the ball is hit centrally, and the keeper stays in the middle, they have a 60% chance of saving the ball.

The best strategy for penalties, in other words, is to stand in the middle of the goal and hope the player misses the target. Which is what Parkinson should have told Stead (or whomever) to do. Probably he would not have saved it but probably all penalties go into the goal.

And so after the penalty is scored Parkinson would know that Halliday was the man to remove because there was a game to chance and remove him for a now warmed up Williams with Stead returning up front.

Had the penalty been missed or Stead have saved it Parkinson could remove a different player, probably Stead, and tried to grind out a victory with the eight players in defensive position as he has previously.

But what is to be done, part one

In the case of denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity Referees have to understand that they are handing out the single biggest on field punishment in the game – the A-Bomb of football – and perhaps consider if a player running away from goal with covering defenders who is – shall we say – brushed is really the situation that whomever framed the rules envisaged when this ultimate sanction was created.

Those Referees who do feel they have to send a goalkeeper off and that the punishment they are mandated to give is without proportion might want to complain to their superiors and try get the rule changed.

I shall not hold my breath for that.

But what is to be done, part two

Football needs to look again at what the role of Referees is and what he is trying to achieve. Football’s laws have evolved rather than been created and many of them do not achieve the aims we should expect them to.

The redress given for the denial of a goal – as Ghana attest to – is not on a level with a goal scoring opportunity. Consider the Luis Suárez handball in 2010 and the Jordan Pickford sending off on Saturday and reflect that Pickford’s punishment was massively greater than that of Suárez.

My brother and I have talked long into the night on the merits of awarding an unopposed penalty as redress for the denial of a goal. That is a way that the offended against team could have redress.

It is thinking like that which can start to level the injustice which is codified into football’s laws.