It was difficult not to feel a little sorry for John Ruddy as he defiantly trudged towards the touchline at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Having delicately tickled the onrushing Ramires’ ankle, he was dismayed to see that the referee immediately pulled out the red card in what must have become a familiar feeling for the modern goal-keeper.
It’s never been easy to be a goal-keeper. After being bullied from an early age into standing between the sticks and roundly judged as being fundamentally strange for wanting to do so from then on, any particular mistake or minute error in judgement they make more often than not leads to goals conceded and games lost. The present interpretation of the ‘last man’ red card rule though has accentuated this pressure. One small misjudgement that may be neither intentional, clumsy or malicious can end a game for the player in an instant.
There are also suspicions that the rule is neither consistent nor fair.
The law reads that “a player, substitute or substituted player is sent off and shown the red card if he… denies an obvious goalscoring opportunity to an opponent moving towards the player’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick or a penalty kick.”
The question has to be asked though; did Ruddy deny Chelsea a clear goalscoring opportunity? The obvious answer seems yes; Ramires had all but rounded the keeper and was well placed to shoot into an empty net. The consequence of him being stopped though was a penalty. There are few more obvious chances to score than from the penalty spot. So was the opportunity denied or was it merely postponed?
There is a suspicion that in conceding a penalty and a red card, teams are being punished twice for the same offence.
When the same situation occurs outside the box a free-kick is awarded. A free-kick, of course, cannot be called an obvious opportunity to score (unless you are Wayne Rooney at the moment) so the red card is warranted for preventing one.
The alternative would be to issue a yellow card to the player who commits a ‘last man’ offence inside the area and a red card to those who commit it outside the area, when a penalty will not be awarded.
The practicalities of this would be a little tricky. It feels unnatural that the card issued for a crime committed closer to the goal – where presumably less can go wrong in the bid to score a goal – should be less severe. It would also open a debate into preventing a goal by handling the ball. At present the same punishment is given as a ‘last man’ offence; a penalty and a red card. You could suggest, using the same argument as above, that a penalty is enough. I’m not so sure.
What is clear is that this rule has never really been perfected. This is partly due to the rather arbitrary spatial nature of the penalty area and the difficultly in judging intent; should an intentional hack at a forward clean through on goal be punished more harshly than a clumsy, inadvertent bundle? It would seem though that with a tinkering of the rules ‘keepers like Ruddy might be able to breathe a little easier.