'Even worse...' - Top ref and pundits' verdict on controversial handball decisions in Sheffield United v Luton
Former top referee Dermot Gallagher expressed his surprise at the decision to penalise Vini Souza for handball during Sheffield United's victory at Luton Town on Saturday, describing the penalty call as "really, really harsh". United's 3-1 win at Kenilworth Road saw two contentious spot-kicks awarded after VAR checks.
First James McAtee converted from the spot after Reece Burke was penalised for handling Souza's header, before the Brazilian was adjudged to have handled a flick from Elijah Adebayo. Referee Chris Kavanagh was advised by his VAR to check his pitchside monitor on both occasions and gave both as penalties, leaving Luton boss Rob Edwards admitting that he didn't know what a spot-kick was any more.
For his part Chris Wilder told his post-match press conference that he had not seen a replay of either incident but both were covered on Sky Sports' Ref Watch segment today, with former Premier League referee Gallagher joined by pundits Stephen Warnock and Sue Smith to discuss the weekend's big refereeing calls.
Over footage of Burke's handball, which saw the defender stick out an arm which blocked Souza's goalbound header from what is now described as an "unnatural position", Gallagher was asked if the arm being higher than the shoulder was the main criteria for deciding if a penalty should be awarded. "It’s one of the criteria," he said, "to look at whether the arm is extended out or above the shoulder. They’re two of the big things, aren’t they, because you’re making your body bigger.
"It's similar to Dan Burn a couple of seasons ago, wasn’t it? The ball's headed back and strikes him on the arm. Arms above the head ... with the law as it is, to a certain extent I can understand that one. Referees don’t like it, but it’s not the referee’s choice. Arms above the shoulder, definitely strikes him. I allude to the Dan Burn one because that was given. People didn’t like it, I don’t know what you can do, but that’s the rule."
Warnock and Smith disagreed. "This is the handball rules that we we keep on talking about, week in, week out," the former Liverpool defender said. "We don’t like it, it’s wrong but by the letter of the law, if you do put your hand up, Dermot says it's a penalty. But again common sense has to prevail. I mean what can Reece Burke do in that position? it’s just bizarre.
"What’s he trying to achieve by doing it? He’s not going to put his arm up for the sake of it. Your arms are used for momentum, to get you up in a position for balance. If you take your arms off, you can’t do much. You cannot jump in a certain way, you can’t be physical in the box. It’s part of the game, it’s a contact sport. We need to use our arms and it’s not deliberate."
Smith added: "It can never ever be a penalty. It's so harsh. I think when you hear managers coming out as well saying I don’t actually know what handball is now, that’s that’s the difficulty, isn’t it? We’re struggling to understand it, because that should never, ever be a handball. He’s not meant to gain any sort of advantage, he’s just coming down in balance. It hits his arm and nobody appeals for it as well. That’s the other thing."
The panel were then shown footage of Souza's 'handball', which appeared less clear-cut to say the least. The resulting spot-kick was scored by Carlton Morris to half the deficit at 2-1 to United and could have been a major turning point in the game if Luton had fought back to draw level. As it happened Souza scored at the other end to secure United's first away league win of the season.
"I think this one is really, really harsh, to be honest," Gallagher said. "The first one, I can understand why it’s given but this one, I look and look and look and I just don’t see it. What you would say is, is it clear and obvious error? I don’t know. The VAR says it has struck his arm and decides to send him to screen. The referee still has a choice to say no but the referee went with the VAR.
"I actually felt - and I’m not sticking up for anybody here, I’m trying to be objective about it - that when he went across to the screen, he would say no. I really did. Whether he felt that he’d given the first one and had to give the second one because of consistency, I don’t know. But it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d have said no."
Smith said: "I think this is even worse. The first one was poor but I actually think this one is even worse. And the fact that the referee does go over to the screen and and look at it, I would love him to have gone over and gone: 'No I still don’t think it is'. That would have been brilliant. Again, where are his arms supposed to be?"
Asked for his view on how the handball law goes from here, with IFAB's guidance about unnatural positions and making the body bigger causing confusion amongst fans, managers and pundits, Warnock said: "Use common sense. It’s not hard. He’s not impacting in that situation at all. Look at both incidents, they’re not trying to get their arm up to try and be cheeky and push it out the way or almost catch the ball. They’re trying to go and win the header, going to try and impact the moment, in the middle of the area.
"So I just think when you look at the players' reactions - even the second one on Souza - the players’ reactions tell you everything. They cannot stand this rule and they cannot stand incidents like that getting punished, for silly things really. So common sense has to start prevailing."