Wednesday was not a day to remember for Chris Hughton. After a swirl of speculation over his future, his Newcastle team became the latest to fall victim to the confusion surrounding the offside law, conceding a crucial goal to Arsenal thanks to an intervention from a player who appeared to many to have made his decisive contribution from beyond the last defender.
Theo Walcott – onside – was running through on goal while Nicklas Bendtner – offside – was jogging in the opposite direction. Mike Williamson was close to tackling Walcott before he was checked by Bendtner. Hughton described it as something "that everyone can see if they look". But Andre Marriner clearly believed that Bendtner was not interfering with play and so allowed Walcott's goal to stand. But this was the latest goal, after Cristiano Ronaldo's last weekend and Tom Huddlestone's the weekend before, to once again raise the issue of what, exactly, constitutes "interfering with play".
The laws say a player in an offside position is deemed to be "active" if they are "interfering with play", "interfering with an opponent" or "gaining an advantage by being in that position." Meat was added to these bones by Fifa's 2005 guide for referees. It said that "if an opponent becomes involved in the play and if there is potential for physical contact, the player in the offside position shall be penalised for interfering with an opponent."
Clearly, Bendtner falls within this definition. The opponent, Williamson, was involved in the play by virtue of his attempts to tackle Walcott. And Bendtner, by running into Williamson, realised the potential of physical contact. As such, he ought to have been penalised for interfering.
But what of Huddlestone's goal for Tottenham at Craven Cottage? The ball broke to him after a corner, and he fired it in through a crowded penalty area. Assistant referee Martin Yerby raised his flag, declaring William Gallas – standing just in front of Mark Schwarzer – as active. Mike Dean disagreed and allowed the goal to stand.
The laws explains the confusion. The argument that Gallas was active rests on the presumption that his presence would have distracted Schwarzer. But this is not "interfering with an opponent" in the sense of Bendtner checking Williamson: there is little to no "potential for physical contact."
Ronaldo was active last weekend, scoring four goals but for one of them he started the move 40 yards behind the last defender. Mesut Ozil broke the trap while Ronaldo trotted back. Ronaldo then turned and headed towards goal, Ozil crossed and Ronaldo tapped in having been inactive in the phase in which he was offside.
Life would be simpler if, as Spurs manager Harry Redknapp said recently, "being in an offside position was offside."