Graham Kelly: Managers actively interfering with changes to offside

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The Independent Football

Members of the refereeing fraternity have been flooding the media with explanations of the new offside interpretation following Gordon Strachan's furious reaction to Ruud van Nistelrooy's winning goal at Old Trafford last weekend.

Manchester United's Dutch striker adopted an offside position at the back of the goal area about four yards out when Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick first came over, then later moved back onside before scoring.

There is no doubt whatsoever that at the moment the ball was played towards the goal by Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy was in an offside position. However, at their meeting in September, the law-making International Board confirmed its commitment to attacking play and to reducing the number of goals cancelled through offside rulings.

The whole thrust of the debate on the offside law, from the time when being in line with the second-to-last defender was made onside in 1990, has been aimed at having fewer needless stoppages and encouraging more entertainment and goals.

The Board claim it produced a clear interpretation of the concept of active play in offside situations. No change was made to the law itself, merely to the interpretation of it to bring greater uniformity in accordance with the manner referees have been officiating in recent seasons.

The emphasis was on deciding whether or not a player in an offside position was actively involved in play and should therefore be penalised. Referees and assistants have been advised not to decide too soon. Wait, wait, wait and see is the advice.

Here is how the offside law once again caused a bitter row and the new interpretation assured United of three points. The International Board now deems a player offside if he is: "Interfering with play" - playing a ball passed or touched forward by a team-mate; "Interfering with an opponent" - preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball, for example by clearly obstructing the goalkeeper's line of vision or movements, or by making a gesture or movement while standing in the path of the ball to deceive or distract an opponent; "Gaining an advantage by being in that position" (seeking to gain an advantage disappeared from the laws in 1995) - playing a ball that rebounds off the woodwork or an opponent having been in an offside position.

Van Nistelrooy was not interfering with play, as the ball did not reach him. He was not interfering with an opponent, because he was beyond the defenders and not in their vision. He did not gain an advantage by being in that position, for the ball was intercepted before it reached him; had it reahed him via goal post, bar or opponent, he would have been offside at that moment. By the time he did receive the ball from Wes Brown - and then score - he was comfortably onside.

Over the years I have found that all we want in football is everything. We say we want entertainment to draw the crowds in, yet when the managers and players get together all the emphasis is upon negative and frustrating tactics and wanting the automatic flag.

That is not a criticism of Strachan, yet he was most unfair to the referee, Graham Barber, who applied the law as instructed. The new offside interpretation is Huttonesque in its narrowness by comparison to the old Bill Shankly dictum: "If he's not interfering with play, what's he doing on the pitch?" When Van Nistelrooy was loitering in the goal area, the Southampton goalkeeper, Antti Niemi, would likely have been aware of his presence, and therefore he was involved with play and an opponent and was a possible target for Ronaldo's free-kick.

What we are hearing, surely, is the death knell of the advancing back four as an offside ploy, if it is not already outmoded. Forwards such as Gary Lineker relished the chance to sit on the shoulder of their marker so that they could time their run to perfection, but it may be a dying art.

Those with blistering pace, like Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips, will merely make the job of the assistants even more impossible, as he did in midweek at White Hart Lane when the poor official struggled in vain to keep alongside as he streaked away to level the scores.

Football is supposed to be a simple game. Few of the pseudo-experts who sit in commentary boxes took the trouble to apprise themselves of the active play concept when it was first introduced, with the consequence that we still have our enjoyment of matches marred by ignorant criticism of "late flags".

It will take more than the Football Association's belated meeting with managers - those who turn up - before the complexities of the new guidelines are fully accepted.