Martin O'Neill's verdict on Peter Walton's penalty award against Aston Villa last Saturday appeared to imply the decision was questionable.
"Like myself the referee was not sure, otherwise he would have given the decision immediately," O'Neill said. But Walton delayed because the ball had run, after Steve Sidwell felled Wolves' Michael Kightly, to Segundo Castillo, who was lining up a shot. Only after that was blocked did Walton blow.
Martin Atkinson was quicker to whistle after Sunderland's Phil Bardsley fouled James McFadden. But as he blew Christian Benitez neatly turned Anton Ferdinand to be clear on goal. Birmingham scored from the free-kick, but that will not happen every time a referee misses an advantage, as Atkinson is likely to be reminded at the next referees' meeting.
The advantage rule (a guideline appended to law five) stresses "the decision to penalise the original offence must be taken within the next few seconds". A missed advantage is infuriating and one wonders why football cannot, like rugby, expand that time frame, albeit not to the extreme practised in the oval-ball code. The current situation is, however, an improvement. Keith Hackett, head of league referees, said: "It used to be instant, now three to four seconds are allowed [before a ref must decide to play advantage]. It has made it easier to apply and players in the Premier League respond. Here there is an average 25 free-kicks a game compared with 40-45 in Europe."
The ability to play advantage is a good indicator of a referee's ability to read a game. Hackett recalled the 2006 Champions League final when Jens Lehmann brought down Samuel Eto'o. Barcelona scored but the whistle had gone. "If an advantage had been played the goal would have stood and Lehmann would only have got a yellow card," Hackett said.