Almanac Soccer: Getting the Fans Offside

By John Green

 

“Allo Fred. Ow’s your soomer been?”

 

It’s Preston North End’s first home game of the 2016/17 Championship season. Acquaintances are being renewed amongst the regulars. However, there’s more to the fixtures than the 46 official games of England’s second division. There are FA and League Cup matches as well, depending upon how far teams progress. Experienced players in the system can accumulate 600 games in the course of their careers. Many matches are played midweek; usually on a Tuesday night, which is when Preston played Hartlepool at home in the first round of the EFL Cup four days prior to this afternoon’s encounter with Fulham.

 

The EFL Cup, or English League Cup, is held between the 92 clubs who make up the four divisions of the  Football Association. The winner qualifies for the UEFA European League third qualifying round. Manchester City won the crown last season.

 

Hartlepool is a fishing port in Durham. The team plays at Victoria Park and struggled near the foot of League Two, two tiers below Preston, in the 2015/16 season. Hartlepool’s mascot is H’Angus the monkey. As well as being known as the Pools, they are also referred to as the ‘monkey hangers’. H’Angus was elected mayor of the town in 2002 with the slogan ‘free bananas for schoolchildren’. Famous supporters of the club include Janick Gers, one of Iron Maiden’s guitarists.

 

Preston wears white and navy blue. Hartlepool’s blue and white stripes are considered to be too much of a clash with the colours of the home team, so tonight they wear bright pink shirts with black socks. A curious choice of apparel. It’s a sparse crowd of around 4,000 in a 24,000 seat stadium, befitting the first round status of the fixture. A couple of hundred visiting supporters are seated in the Alf Shankley Stand while its opposite structure, the Alan Kelly Town End, normally a home side fortress, is not required tonight.

 

The players enter the arena to the strains of the ‘Games of Thrones’ theme. Preston defender and current Socceroo Bailey Wright is only 23 but he is the one who marshals the troops in the back half. While some of his veteran teammates have accumulated over 300 games whilst plying their trade at various levels of the game, no-one from the current lineup has worn the Preston shirt on more occasions than Bailey.

 

It’s hard to score in soccer. The rules have been formulated with a defensive mindset. Let’s not have too many goals chaps; let’s not make it too easy. Teams can place as many men as they like behind the ball while the offside rule practically prevents anyone running ahead of the play to take on the goalkeeper one-on-one. The rule states that there must be at least one defender, not including the goalkeeper, between the player receiving the ball and the goal at the time the ball is delivered to him. The founders of Australian Rules Football, Tom Wills and Henry Harrison, saw no need for such a limitation. More on the offside rule later.

 

The difference in class is obvious. Hartlepool defenders zone off and allow Preston wingers in acting captain Paul Gallagher and peroxide blonde Ben Pringle to gather possessions at will. It seems inevitable that Preston will score, but goals fail to materialise. At half time the ground announcer provides the running scores from other League Cup fixtures. A cheer goes up when it is announced that Blackpool, Preston’s hated rivals from down the M55, are a goal down against Bolton Wanderers. Locals refer to Blackpool as ‘donkey lashers’.

 

When will the first goal come? The game will go into extra time if scores are tied. I lose count of the times the ball pings around the Preston goalmouth in a mob of players and somehow fails to cross the line. Claims of a handball by a Pools defender on the goal line go unrewarded. Joe Garner scores but is ruled offside. In the final minute Irishman Eoin Doyle finds Callum Robinson in the box, but he scoops it over the bar from point blank range. The referee announces three minutes of extra time. In the 93rd minute substitute Chris Humphrey breaks away and sets off on a scything run down the right flank to the roars of the home crowd. He sends a low ball to Doyle who slams it home, leaving the Hartlepool defenders sprawled on the turf in disappointment. The 1-0 victory to Preston saves them from embarrassment and hands them a second round EFL Cup match against Oldham Athletic in a fortnight.

 

Today Preston is hosting West London club Fulham. The Cottagers began their Championship campaign with a surprise 1-0 win at home over title favourites Newcastle United on the previous weekend and they easily overcame Leyton Orient in their EFL Cup match. Fulham appeared for 13 years in the Premier League until being relegated in 2014. Mark Schwartzer played for them during the second half of his tenure as Australia’s goalkeeper.

 

Before the match gets underway there is a minute’s applause by players, officials and 10,000 spectators in memory of former player George Ross, who died aged 73 back in May.

 

After 33 minutes Tom Cairney heads in from the left and Preston goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard attempts to punch it clear. The ball richochets off the crossbar into the path of Sone Aluko, who obliges by nodding the ball into the net. The ball is deposited in the net again just before half time but the score is disallowed because Lindegaard was fouled.

 

It’s Cairney again in the second half as he races through the central corridor evading three tacklers. He delivers to the hulking Matt Smith, who fires at once, only to see Lindegaard block his shot. The ball is propelled straight back to Smith and this time he makes no mistake. The Fulham fans exult, because a 2-0 lead in the second half is normally enough for victory.

 

Preston manager Simon Grayson makes two substitutions and it has immediate effect. Jermaine Beckford crosses into the teeth of goal and Robinson scores with a diving header. The Preston fans come to life. Late in the game Preston skipper Tom Clarke passes across a crowded penalty area and Beckford nudges it home for the equaliser. But no! The offside flag is up! This is where the game becomes a mystery. There are no replays of the incident on the electronic scoreboard. There never are at Deepdale, because the scoreboard lacks the capability to do so. It’s impossible for the vast majority of spectators to evaluate the linesman’s call. There is sense of dislocation, because you cannot tell what has just happened. All of the participants have moved away from the positions they occupied when the official raised his flag and that moment has passed into history. The linesman don’t have the luxury of ‘going upstairs’ for video evidence like cricket or rugby ajudicators. You simply have to accept their decision.  Grayson appears unhappy on the sidelines.

 

Fulham wins 2-1. Beckford is involved in an animated conversation with the match officials.

 

Plenty of supporters are discussing the offside call as we pour out onto Deepdale Road. They are more experienced than I am at watching soccer and obviously feel that the decision was doubtful. This is confirmed by the press on the following day. Beckford was in fact onside and the goal should have been allowed. It appears that the offside call on Joe Garner in Tuesday night’s match was also an erroneous one.

 

Grayson was philosophical in his post-match press conference and wouldn’t be drawn into criticising the linesman’s judgement. Was it the risk of a heavy fine or was he tacitly acknowledging that sometimes the contentious offside calls are going to go in his favour?

 

That’s the game, for better or worse. A lot of goals are disallowed. Linesman have to make split second decisions with a rule that is difficult to administer and often controversial. There is no appeal. Sometimes they get it wrong and it effects the results of games.

 

I think Wills and Harrison got it right back in 1858.

 

 

Comments

  1. Michael Viljoen says:

    Enjoyable read, John.
    The other day I was looking at highlights of one of the Cameroon Lions most famous victories, the quarter final in Sydney of the 2000 Olympics, when Cameroon beat Brazil 2-1. If I remember correctly, Brazil put one in the net when the score was 1-1, but the scorer was ruled off-side. The replay suggested that the forward was easily on-side – a bad line call. It would have been hard to see how Cameroon could have come back from being 1-2 down, as were defending bravely, playing with only ten men. Then breathtakingly, Cameroon managed to steal the winner. Then they somehow managed to defend until the end, I believe, finishing the game with only nine men.

    It was an amazing turn of fate, that allowed them through to the semi final in Melbourne, and they eventually claimed the gold medal. So sometimes in soccer you have to ride your luck with the off-side calls.

    I often watch my son, Aaron’s, high school team play. They pay an official to referee the games but feel that they can’t afford to pay for linesmen also. They also don’t ask volunteers to run the lines, as they don’t feel a volunteer would understand the complicated off-side rule well enough to do it competently. So even assuming that the referees well understand the rule, it’s incredibly hard for the referee to judge the angles from the middle of the field to give accurate off-side calls, and I feel they are often just guessing. I feel this sometimes takes away from the enjoyment of the game, and can easily affect the result.

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