Unsung Hero

My daughter, Bethany, told me a story about something good she did at work, but circumstances dictated that she was unable to claim any credit for it. It reminded me of a rugby league story which I’ve since recounted a few times.

I used to play rugby for Sunderland in the mid-1980s. We played a friendly match against Clayton ARLFC in Bradford and afterwards, 5 Sunderland players were asked if we would like to join the Clayton team on a short tour to the South of France to play two matches in Toulouse. We were not really part of the Clayton team but we were welcomed anyway, and made lots of friends. At this point, I could tell you stories of some of the events of that memorable trip, including:

  • a drunken visit to the Pernod factory,
  • indescribable mass seasickness on the Portsmouth to St Malo ferry,
  • the time I fell asleep in a French café/bar and awoke with my right arm completely clean-shaven,
  • trout fishing,
  • getting lost in Auterive and having to blag a lift back to our base using translation skills gained from my French language O-level,
  • an England v France size contest (I’ll leave it to your imagination to determine what was being measured, suffice to say the little French scrum-half won after the English prop-forward quickly admitted defeat before having to remove his trouser belt).

Clayton ARLFC

This particular story is about one of the best moments I’ve ever had on a rugby pitch. In a tough game played in blistering heat, the score was 20-20 with less than a minute to play. Our French opponents were in possession, virtually on their own line, but in a final display of Gallic flair they whizzed the ball out to their left-winger who cut through our defence and went flying down the touchline. I was the only Clayton player who made an effort to chase. With every stride I was slowly gaining ground and, after a 90m run, we arrived at our try-line together. He glanced across at me and put in a full scale dramatic dive into the corner to claim the match-winning try. I did the same thing, smashed him in mid-air with every ounce of energy I had left and managed to dislodge the ball and prevent him scoring. The final whistle blew immediately afterwards.

The French winger and I gathered our breaths back – or as the Australians call it, “sucked in the big ones” – we shook hands, helped each other off the ground and joined our teammates at the other end of the pitch in an act of cross-channel, end-of-match camaraderie.

Back in the changing rooms, all the players were buzzing; no one had expected us to even get close to the French team, let alone leave the match with a draw. I’ll never forget the moment that our captain was talking to all the senior players in the team and said “What a fantastic match, but who made that crunching tackle at the end to stop them scoring?” No one said anything; inside my head, my brain was screaming “Tell them, tell them it was you”, but I didn’t. I thought in that moment that I would come across as a needy little nerd in a team of relatively tough rugby players, so I opted to sit there in silence.

Did I do the right thing? I’m not sure, even to this day.

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If I Were in Charge of FIFA – Part 2, Radical Solution

Everything suggested in part 1 surely seems logical to the impartial observer; I have no doubt that each of those topics has already been discussed within FIFA to varying levels. It is now time to suggest something substantially more radical.

The Scoring System

In addition to removing the offside rule, adopting a sin-bin approach and bringing in video technology, I propose that we completely amend the scoring system. Even those games that are considered to be exciting might still only end up with a handful of goals scored. Why don’t we turn everything that happens into a meaningful event on the scoresheet? Further, why don’t we make those scoring situations more likely to occur?

The best way I can see to achieve more excitement is to increase the size of the goalposts. We can keep the current goals as they are but introduce a larger goal around the outside; the result is an “inner goal” and an “outer goal”. Inner goals are the usual 24ft by 8ft high and outer goals could be 60ft by 14ft.

Goalposts - 2

The object of football is to score goals so, while there will be points awarded for different actions that take place in the game, by far the greatest reward is to score a goal. I have devised a point-scoring system which rewards attacking play, also rewards good defensive play but penalises offenders for foul or negative play.

Points Scoring

Here are some notes of the above categories which might not be obvious. A “shot on target” is only awarded if it is saved or blocked, in other words, a goal scored would not additionally count as a shot on target. “Woodwork” effectively means hitting the post and the ball rebounding back into play. A blocked shot is always made by a defender, a save only by the goalkeeper. The “15-second rule” refers to the length of time the ball is in play before it is propelled into the other team’s half of the pitch. “Diving” relates to any kind of activity where a player tries to gain a free kick when they haven’t been sufficiently fouled. “Backchat” refers to any criticism of an official, or a decision they have made, by a player or a manager.

I know what you are thinking. This is ‘pie-in-the-sky’, unprovable logic designed to be controversial. I predicted your thought process and thought I would attempt to demonstrate how it might work. I decided to record the Championship play-off final of 2017 between Huddersfield Town and Reading, the intention being to scrutinise every action that could be considered point-scoring under my new system. I’m under no illusion that this type of experiment is flawed. There were no inner or outer goals on the pitch at the time, and more importantly, the players were not aware of these rules while the match was taking place. Nevertheless, it did allow me to tot up the scores just to give us an idea of how it would pan out.

Over 90 minutes, the match ended in a scoreless draw with – let’s be honest about this – an underwhelming amount of action in either goal area. Although I never considered extra time in my calculations, they couldn’t score a goal in the next 30 minutes either, and a match worth over £180 million to the victors was settled by a missed penalty kick. This is a perfect example of why I’m disillusioned with the sport. Watching a recording of the game while accumulating scores according to a different method actually made things a lot more interesting for me, and I can only assume that the same would apply to spectators because there was something significant happening right throughout the game. Here is a picture of my rough scoring sheet; blue ink denotes the first half, red denotes the second:

Huddersfield v Reading Worksheet

I then built a spreadsheet to calculate the result based on the points per action mentioned earlier. You will see that although Huddersfield Town were promoted on penalties, they lost this match 196 – 190.

Huddersfield v Reading Spreadsheet

Out of every statistic in the above spreadsheet, the thing that astounded me most was the extent of the thing that annoys me the most. Reading passed the ball back to a teammate in his own half from a position in the opposing half a total of 36 times; that is more often than once every two minutes of actual playing time.

So, who wants to appoint me on to the board of directors of FIFA? I feel a petition coming on.

If I Were in Charge of FIFA – Part 1, Realistic Solutions

As a youngster, I used to love football, really love football, in fact, I was probably in love with football. My interest has declined over the last decade to the point where, after virtually every broadcasted match I watch, I end up saying to myself, “Well that’s another 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back”.

There are many reasons for this, the main one being the attitude of the overpaid prima-donnas who happen to be blessed with a modicum of soccer skills and are only in the sport to allow them access to a Z-list celebrity lifestyle. High profile players are judged not so much by what they can do with a ball but by the volume of tabloid column inches commanded by their wives/girlfriends, the “swag in their WAG”.

As a general observation, players these days have no club loyalty, and the ludicrously high transfer fees mean that any person in their right mind would grab the opportunity to part company with their employer. Those transfer fees and wages are in turn funded by ridiculously high admission fees and merchandise costs, so ultimately your ‘average Joe’ is financing this entire culture. While all this irritates me beyond belief, I do not think this is the reason for my level of disinterest; the truth of the matter is that the majority of games involve a feat of endurance just to get through the sheer boredom.

Sleeping-football-fan-640x400

Imagine returning home from an afternoon at the footie and your partner asks you if it was a good game. You reply, “it was one of the best nil-nil draws I’ve seen for a long time”. “We were all over them”. “We had at least four shots on target”. “Two players were booked for pushing each other near the touchline”.  “The ref was blind”. “We should have had a penalty”. “Our manager nearly blew a gasket on the touchline”. By the time you finished, your partner has already stifled a few yawns and is thinking about what’s on TV later.

I don’t like it when people moan about stuff and offer no kind of solution to the problem, so the remainder of this article will focus more specifically on the things that bug me and what can be done to make the situation better. Modern day culture makes it difficult for players in the higher echelons of the game to change their egotistical attitudes, but the rules of the game could be modified for the better to provide more entertainment for the paying customer; so, if I were in charge of FIFA…

Match Time

A professional football match is 90 minutes plus injury time but the average English Premier League game has the ball in play for just 63 minutes. You wouldn’t buy a pint of milk, open it and find a third of a pint is missing so if you pay to watch 90 minutes of football you should get 90 minutes of football. Whenever a free kick is awarded anywhere near the penalty area, it takes around 60 seconds just to discuss tactics, get the wall sorted out and wait for the referee to spray his can of squirty cream. That’s one ninetieth of your admission fee watching everyone fart about, immediately and invariably followed by someone hoofing it over the crossbar and into the crowd. There is a simple solution, STOP THE CLOCK WHEN THE BALL IS NOT IN PLAY! Even if a match is cut down to 80 minutes playing time, you would still get greater value for money… and there would be no need for arguments over the length of injury time.

Shepherding the Ball Out Of Play

You see it happen in every single match; the ball is passed to a team member, and as it trickles towards the touchline a defender is able to get between the ball and the attacker, and shield it with no intention whatsoever of making a play. As a defender, the purpose is to gain your side a throw-in or a goal-kick but what is happening here is a blatant obstruction. Fans want to see players challenging for the ball, not to see players stopping others challenge for the ball. The same applies to that ridiculous charade towards the end of a game when a team in the lead deliberately head toward a corner flag and attempt to protect it with no intention of being positive. Solution? Award a free kick against the offender, simple.

Negative Play

The primary objective of the game of football is to score goals. The goalposts are deliberately placed at the end of the pitch where your team is facing, so why do teams spend so much time passing the ball in the opposite direction? One of the best rule changes introduced in relatively recent times was disallowing the goalkeeper from picking the ball up if it was passed intentionally by a player in his own team. This doesn’t, however, stop most professional teams from retaining possession by tip-tapping the ball back and forth across the line of defenders, which often includes the goalkeeper, for minutes at a time. This is against the spirit of the game. I will never forget my Dad refer to Ray Wilkins as “the master of the square ball” because he only ever passed it sideways; he nearly fell off his chair when Wilkins passed FORWARD to an attacker during an England World Cup match in 1982. Michael Carrick can be tarred with the same brush and virtually every Premier League back four are guilty of this shameless possession-retaining tactic. There are of course many modern day players who at least attempt to move the ball forward at every opportunity, but we do seem to be missing that level of drive and energy provided by the likes of Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, George Best and Carlos Tevez.

In basketball when a team starts with possession, they are given 30 seconds to attempt a shot. Why not give a football team say 15 seconds to propel the ball into the opponent’s half and then award a free kick against any team deliberately passing the ball back to a teammate in their own half?

Bookings

I have a real problem with deliberate foul play. The yellow card given to players often does not benefit the team that has suffered unless a persistent offender is sent off when they receive two yellow cards. I know there is a totting up system where a player can be suspended for receiving too many yellow cards, but all that does is penalise that player in a future game where a manager can plan for that player’s absence. The answer to this problem is again very simple, send a player off the pitch to a sin bin for 10 minutes so that the team that has been fouled receives some immediate benefit. They have this system in rugby league, rugby union, ice and field hockey, handball, basketball, etc. A red card offence should still be a complete sending-off for the remainder of the game.

Oh, and if a player wants to take his shirt off and whirl it around like a helicopter blade after scoring a goal then let him (or her!); in what world is that a bookable offence?

The Offside Rule

The great Dutch striker, Marco van Basten, suggested we should remove the offside rule completely from the game of football. He was somewhat lambasted on social media for such a radical change to this ‘beautiful game’. If you think about it, you will come to the conclusion he is absolutely correct. The offside rule causes lots of controversy, and it is tough for the officials to get it right 100% of the time. It is far too often the topic of conversation between TV pundits when reviewing the key events in a match. While scrapping the offside rule altogether would eliminate these minor problems, it would actually resolve one major one. If you were to watch a game from a helicopter above the ground, you would find that, apart from the two goalkeepers, the majority of the action takes place in the middle third of the field; what’s more, all the remaining 20 players are amassed into that small section of the pitch. I attended a match a few years ago where there were so many people packed into the middle that whenever there was a goal kick, it inevitably resulted in a game of head tennis. Forwards cannot go beyond the defender’s backline for fear of being offside, but if there was no offside rule and they can go wherever they like, then the players would spread out across the pitch leaving more space for the talented players to show their skills and the public to be entertained.

Video Technology

Other professional sports incorporate modern technology to get on-field decisions correct. Cricket and tennis have ball-tracking simulations; both forms of rugby and other sports also have video replay technology for the top games. The argument against this is that play is disrupted, and the flow of the match is halted but, in truth, these decisions take no more than 30 or 40 seconds, and the most correct and fair result is applied. Some argue that this builds up the drama for both the TV viewer and, where there are giant screens available, to the supporter in the ground. When you consider how much time is spent arguing over whether or not decisions were correct, what is an extra 40 seconds during the match time? Of course, the game clock is stopped during this scrutiny by a 4th official, so no one is disadvantaged. Penalty incidents, bookings, deflections for corners and close offside decisions could all be impacted. I would recommend that video technology could be called upon at any time by the referee, but also optionally once per half by each team, and the request is not lost if the challenge is subsequently successful. FIFA should adopt video technology now, fact!

Diving

Feigning injury to get another player booked is almost as bad as fouling an opponent. The excruciating agony etched across the faces of players who have received the merest of taps on the ankle or an awkward-looking fall following a collision defies belief. Two minutes later, they can be seen running around like young puppies. Pack it in, it is cheating. A yellow card, a fine and a sin bin will solve this.

Backchat/Respect

Match officials are not corrupt. No one is saying they are perfect and make the correct decision every time, but they do the best job they can for a fraction of the pay awarded to the players. They must still, however, be respected; every decision they make is in good faith and does not warrant backchat, questioning or, in the worst cases, insulting verbal abuse. Players and managers must respect all the match officials.

Long Penalties

Some offences, particularly those in the penalty area, are more serious than others. A blatant foul to prevent a scoring opportunity or maybe a deliberate handball on the goal-line are typical examples of the standard penalty situation. Accidental handling of the ball or maybe a bit of mild shirt-tugging could warrant a “long penalty”, this is just like a normal penalty kick except taken from anywhere on the white line defining the penalty area with just the goalkeeper to beat.

 

I firmly believe that all the ideas suggested in this article are realistic and with a few open minds and a willingness to experiment, FIFA could give great consideration to them. Maybe, sat in their ivory towers, the powers that be have already discussed similar rule changes and dismissed them for now?

It’s time for a bit of fun through some more radical thinking. Please continue to the second article in this two-part analysis to see the possible effect of some new rule changes along with a worked example from the recent Huddersfield v Reading 2017 Championship play-off final.

Gas Mask

My son, Craig, used to play for the local junior cricket team. His slightly younger sister, Loren, was taking part in a school project researching the Second World War. Apart from the fact that these two events were taking part at the same point in their childhood, you might not think these facts are connected, but let me tell you a little story.

One day, during the early part of summer, Craig came home from school and unusually found Loren playing in his bedroom. She had located a hand-sized plastic object and had it over her mouth and nose deeply breathing in and out. He said, “Oi, what are you doing in here?”

Loren replied, “Never mind that, what are you doing with a gas mask in your bedroom?”

Craig said, “That’s not a gas mask, it’s a cricket box!”

This apparently meant nothing to Loren until Craig explained about the part of the male anatomy protected by a cricket box while batting. I do believe that this was the first time Loren had voluntarily dashed to the bathroom to scrub her face and to clean her teeth.

Here are two images for you, the first to explain what Loren thought she was doing and the second to illustrate what she was actually doing.

Razzle-Dazzle

As a 14-year-old, I remember captaining my school cricket team. One evening, we played a cup game at Great Horton CC in Bradford. I can’t recall which school we played against, but I remember the match for two different reasons. Our team bowled first, and it was the only time I ever took a hat-trick. All three wickets were caught by the same player fielding at deep mid-off, so I’m not sure if I can claim a significant amount of credit as a feat of bowling knowing that I had been whacked to the edge of the field on three separate occasions. That is not, however, the main reason why I remembered this match.

Thin Cricketer

I was one of the two opening batsmen, and I played a wild shot that resulted in my dismissal for a very low score. I trudged back to the clubhouse where the rest of the team were sitting outside watching the match. There was no applause, no words of consolation and barely even an acknowledgement of my short-lived innings. As I walked past my teammates and headed for the changing room, the teacher in charge said, “Where do you think you’re going?” I replied that I was just going to take my pads off and change my shoes.

Feeling rather dejected and a little embarrassed at my poor performance with the bat, I sat myself down in an empty changing room. Something caught my eye. Underneath the bench opposite me, I saw a rolled up magazine. I wandered over to investigate further and unfurled it to reveal the title “Razzle”. Yes, it was the first time I had ever encountered a ‘porno’ magazine. I had honestly never seen any images like those I saw that evening. This was already starting to feel like a more exciting world. My eyes opened ever-wider in wonderment as I (literally) peeled open each page in the magazine.

Goggle Eyes

It’s amazing how quickly 20 minutes go by, and I quickly came to my senses. I rolled the magazine up and returned it exactly where I had found it before leaving the clubhouse and joining my teammates outside. The teacher shouted across, “What have you been doing?” I shouted back, “Taking my pads off!” He replied, and I quote, “You’re still fuckin’ wearing ‘em!!”

Beetroot Face

The last day of the cricket season had arrived. The under-17’s Bankfoot cricket team in the Bradford League had completed a less than moderate campaign finishing just three places from the bottom of the table. Winning or losing the last game of the season would have made no difference to the finishing position, but with hindsight, that is no reason for my despicable unsportsmanlike behaviour that day.

I opened the batting for that team along with a good friend of mine, Richard. We had privately battled all year to end the season with the best batting average to the point where, to us, the contest had become more important than the fortunes of the team. Before that final match started, I led Richard with a batting average of 20.5 runs per innings compared to his 20.1. We went out to bat together and even shook hands before we started; I guess the opposition must have thought that a bit odd!

Within just a few overs, Richard had smashed the ball around and had already scored 30 runs before I had even scored 5. This was a disaster; at this rate, he was going to overtake me in the averages. As a team player, I really should not have become so excited when he was caught by the slip fielder. Richard walked over to me before leaving the field and said in a desperate act of reverse-psychology mind games, “Well, it’s all yours.”

I mentally worked out what I needed to do to claim the best batting average for the season, I either needed to score more than 30 runs or score 10 runs but not lose my wicket. It is shameful to admit that I opted for the latter option and defended my way through the next 15 overs, attempting to make sure that whoever was at the other end of the wicket took most of the strike. In short, I played in the style of the great Geoffrey Boycott for the entire 20-over match and scored 15 runs, thereby winning our contest. Of course, the team ended up losing the game because we barely scored any runs, but at the time, that didn’t really matter to me.

Boycott

The end-of-season club awards ceremony took place a few weeks later, not just for the under 17’s but for all the age brackets and teams that played for Bankfoot CC. That year, it was an organised fish and chip supper for all the players, both junior and senior, and some family members. The club chairman started his speech while people were still eating and shortly afterwards, he announced the winners of the various awards. My turn came around, I was called up to receive a small trophy for the highest batting average for the under 17’s. I was given a round of applause, walked over to the chairman, shook hands, received my award and returned to my seat.

30 seconds later, a lady approached the opposite side of my table and held her open hand out to me. I smiled, stood up and shook her hand. She said to me, “Very nice, well done and all that, now will you pass me your dirty plate?” Sweet Lord, she was only trying to tidy up. Deep embarrassment took over, and I’m convinced my face went a dark shade of beetroot red as all my mates laughed their bloody heads off.

As an epilogue to the story, the team sheets and scorecards for the first five matches of the following season looked something like this:

Cricket scoresheet