The Worst Decision Ever – part II

Who was to blame for Crystal Palace’s goal that wasn’t? The ref, Bristol City, or those pesky stanchion designers (again).

Duleep Allirajah

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Falling victim to the Worst Decision Ever in football history is bad enough. Rank bad luck. The Fickle Finger of Fate jabbing you in the eye. But to suffer a second Worst Decision Ever? Well that’s more than just coincidence, isn’t it? This week, Crystal Palace fell victim to a second stanchion-related disallowed goal in the space of 30 years. Some Palace fans are now justifiably asking whether we are the Most Cheated Club in Football History. Ever.

Freddy Sears’ disallowed goal at Ashton Gate was a national scandal. By rights we should be calling it Ashton Gate-Gate. But we’re not because that sounds a bit silly. It also perfectly illustrates the limitations of the hackneyed journalistic convention of appending ‘gate’ to a proper noun to denote a scandal of Watergate proportions. But I digress. The point is that we wuz robbed. Twice. First Clive Allen’s disallowed goal against Coventry in 1980, which rebounded off the stanchion (for those too young to remember it, watch it on YouTube). And now Freddy Sear’s goal, which also went in, but bounced back off a stanchion (watch it here).

Cheated? Most certainly. But by whom? The obvious culprit is referee Rob Shoebridge aided and abetted by his two linesmen. The crowd saw what happened. The players all saw. So how did the match officials fail to spot that the ball had gone in? All three of them. It beggars belief. Watch the replays. You can see by the reaction of the Bristol City players – trudging back to the halfway line, arguing with each other – that they thought it was a goal. If the officials were all unsighted – and there were no mitigating opthalmic reasons – then why didn’t they ask the Bristol City players if the ball had gone in?

It has become customary in these situations for enraged football fans to launch an internet hate campaign against ‘blunder refs’. Anders Frisk, Urs Meier and most recently Tom Henning Ovrebo have all been the target of internet hate campaigns. Obvrebo’s failure to award Chelsea one of several stonewall penalties in their Champions League semi-final against Barcelona spawned dozens of furious anti-Ovrebo Facebook groups. Will the same fate befall the hapless Shoebridge? Will his email inbox be inundated by hate mail? Will angry 15-year-olds posting textspeak death threats on social networking sites drive the 31-year-old official into hiding? Well, nothing to report so far. There has been no Croydon fatwa issued against Shoebridge as yet. A quick search of Facebook yielded only two anti-Shoebridge groups – ‘Rob Shoebridge and Bristol City are Cheating Scum’ and ‘Get Rob Shoebridge Kicked out of the Refereeing Federation’ – which can hardly be described as menacing.

The referee was inept. No question. But, in failing to fess up to the goal, were Bristol City guilty of unsporting conduct? ‘I thought Gary Johnson and his players could have shown more sportsmanship because they knew it was a goal, like everyone else’, fumed manager Neil Warnock. ‘Refs make mistakes, but morally I felt Bristol should have let us score a goal there.’ Palace chairman Simon Jordan went one step further and used the c-word. ‘I think Bristol City cheated, I think they know it was a goal. Win at all costs is part and parcel of professional sport, but not by cheating.’ City manager Gary Johnson claims, somewhat unconvincingly, that he was told by the match assessor that the goal was disallowed for an ‘infringement’.

We shouldn’t overlook the role played by the stanchion itself. I had never even heard the word ‘stanchion’ before Clive Allen’s disallowed goal. It was just an innocuous bit of the goal frame. Not any more. Now I’m haunted by stanchions. Stanchions have got it in for my football club. Of course, it might seem rather churlish to blame an inanimate object for a disallowed goal. But it could be argued – and you’ll have to bear with me on this – that the problem lies with the design of the stanchion. The wrong kind of stanchion.

The Clive Owen phantom goal actually prompted football clubs to redesign their goal nets. Old-style stanchions were removed. Or so we’d thought. The latest phantom goal incident, it could be argued, is a consequence of stanchion creep. In 1980 the stanchions were only at the top of the goals. The offending stanchion at Ashton Gate was at the base of the net. I’ve checked the Football Association ‘Goals for Football’ guidance notes. Yes, honestly, such a document really does exist. It has to exist. There’d be goal construction anarchy otherwise. But the guidance says nothing about stanchions at the base of the net. Is there any need for a bar at the bottom of the net? It’s a miscarriage of justice waiting to happen. Football must rid itself of the scourge of these evil stanchions.

Are the football authorities to blame? Not in an Italian-style conspiracy theory way, but in dragging their heels over the introduction of goal-line technology. ‘We can put a man on the moon’, said Neil Warnock. ‘Yet we cannot place a couple of sensors in a net to show when a goal has been scored.’ If a reliable technological gizmo could instantaneously detect whether a ball had crossed the goal-line then I can’t see a problem. But I’m not in favour of using video replays to resolve any other disputed decisions. Firstly, a referral to a video ref would disrupt the flow of the game. It makes more sense in stop-start sports like cricket or tennis, but not in football. Secondly, technology wouldn’t eradicate the vast majority of disputed decisions. Phantom goals are rare, but dodgy offside calls or harsh bookings are ten-a-penny because these decisions involve a large dollop of subjective interpretation.

So fine, bring in the goal-line sensor, but let’s not kid ourselves that technology can rid football of human fallibility. As long as football matches have referees there will always be miscarriages of justice. In fact I wouldn’t have it any other way. Football is essentially drama, and refereeing blunders often provide a delicious twist to the plot. If human error was eradicated think about what we’d lose. Venerable traditions, like chanting ‘the referee’s a wanker’, would disappear. No more of those great football debates: Was Maradona a genius or a cheat? Did the ball cross the line for Geoff Hurst’s second goal in 1966? And most importantly we’d be deprived of the glorious spectacle of an aggrieved manager going mental at the ref. Football without a glorious, full-blown Neil Warnock rant would be a very dull place indeed.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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