Time stretches into the distance

 

Before every Preston home game a song by the Lancashire Hotpots is played over the PA.

PNE, PNE, we love you PNE

You’re the greatest team that’s ever been in the country

We don’t come from Blackburn or from Burn – a – ley

The crowd all cheer

Proud of Lancashire

We love you PNE

The club has a strong sense of belonging to a distinctive part of England and of being involved in a deadly rivalry with other Lancashire-based teams for the honour of being the best in the red rose county.

Coventry City, on the other hand, have temporarily lost their moorings. The club owners are in dispute over rent with the management of Ricoh Arena, where the Sky Blues took up residence in 2005. Coventry pulled the pin on the arrangement and walked out. They plan to build a new venue from scratch which they say will provide a fair share of match day returns. In the meantime they have arranged a three-year deal to share Sixfields Stadium, the home of Northampton, currently competing in League Two. Sixfields is around 80 kilometres from Coventry, so it doesn’t take too much imagination to surmise that Coventry’s attendances have taken a battering. To make matters worse the club is insolvent at present and was docked ten points for its troubles by the Football League at the beginning of the season, effectively putting them three wins behind the rest of the field.

But appearances can be deceptive. Coventry have battled on and they are in eleventh place on the ladder. If not for their ten-point penalty they would be well and truly in the top six promotion zone. They won through to the fourth round of the FA Cup by coming from behind against Barnsley and have been presented with a dream fixture with Premier league giants Arsenal at Emirates Stadium next Friday night.

I am seated next to former Preston player Graeme Atkinson who does part-time media work. He played 79 games for the club in the mid-nineties and was part of their League Two winning team in 1996. He made over 350 appearances as a professional and even had a run in New Zealand when on loan from Hull City as a youngster. An elderly man wanders over for a chat. His name is Alan McKenna and he remembers Graeme from his time at Deepdale. Alan is the father of Paul McKenna, a local boy who played 425 games in the white shirt and captained the club for a time. Alan tells us Paul was disappointed not to be offered another contract by Fleetwood Town in League Two, but was philosophical given that he is now 36. Instead of following a management or coaching direction he has opted instead to retire and open his own retail store in Ecclestone, just outside Preston and the place where he was born.

After Alan returns to his wife and grandchildren Graeme remarks on the paths taken by players after football. Sometimes careers end sooner than they think. Graham is now a teacher at Myerscough College and is a course tutor in a program called the Vocational Btec Diploma. The course is part of the Football League’s education scheme for young players and is being conducted at Myerscough College on behalf of Blackburn Rovers, although it is open to other boys as well.

A lot of talented juniors make their way through various development squads at major soccer clubs from about the age of fourteen. The dream of making it as a professional soccer player consumes them and many leave school early to take up scholarships. If they are not quite up to the mark the system can spit them out at 19 or 20 and they are left without an education and further prospects. This program is designed to train young players for careers in fields like physiotherapy and sports science whether or not they make it as footballers and can lead to university studies. Graduates  who have been cut from team lists but are late developers sometimes make it back into the football system as mature age recruits in their early twenties, but this time with qualifications which make it easier for them to make a living on the other side of their football careers.

Graeme says that English clubs are starting to do this particularly well, but there is a lamentable lack of progress with the welfare of young hopefuls in Europe.

The game gets under way. I have access to my very own match description, because I am also seated next to a commentator providing a webcast for Coventry supporters.

There is a palpable sense of anticipation when you are witnessing a soccer match and care about the result. The whole affair is poised on a knife edge and you earnestly hope that your team is going to be the first to score. Preston dominates play in the first half and only the acrobatics of Coventry custodian Joe Murphy keeps the Lilywhites out.

It’s now four o’clock in the afternoon. I have a view of through the light towers of the darkened streets of of Holme Slack outside the stadium and the winter clouds descending on the hills of the distant Forest of Bowland. In January the second halves of English soccer matches are always played under floodlights at night.

Kevin Davies is 36-year-old striker. He played for England against Montenegro in 2010 and was the oldest debutant in the national team for over 50 years. Davies joined Preston last year after ten seasons at Bolton Wanderers. At 183 cms in height he is taller and stronger than most of his opponents, and certainly more cunning. He may not be quick these days but he has the skills and the smarts to direct the traffic in Preston’s forward half. He complains vociferously to the referee if any decisions go against him. At the 54-minute mark defender David Buchanan streaks down the left and spots Davies in space between two defenders. He executes a quick, sharp cross which finds Davies and the big man hammers the ball past Murphy and under the crossbar for his fifth goal of the season.

The Preston loyalists are now in full voice. At no stage this season has Preston lost a game after being a goal up. It seems only a matter of time before the home side scores again.

But the second goal fails to materialise despite Preston’s unrelenting pressure. With three minutes to go Davies goes from victor to villain when he is red-carded for an alleged two-footed tackle on Cyrus Christie. As he is escorted to the change rooms by an official he is vigorously applauded by the faithful. The referee, Kevin Wright, declares there will be four minutes of injury time. Regardless of having only ten men on the field, Preston fans are already celebrating.

Then the match becomes mired in controversy.

Preston pushes everybody back to defend their lead. The ball is cleared and booted over the line and into the crowd. A spectator holds onto the ball and calls on Coventry’s Andy Webster to come and get it himself. Webster remonstrates before the ball is thrown over his head and retrieved by teammate Blair Adams. Preston regains possession and earns a throw-in near their left corner. Two players institute a brand of miniature kick-to-kick near the line in the hope that a defender will thrust a boot out and put it over the boundary again, running the clock down even more. Shrill whistling fills the air. Preston substitutes Paul Gallagher for Jack King. More whistling. Four minutes pass and still the game goes on.

Preston’s goalkeeper, Declan Rudd, has been untroubled for the whole game as Coventry’s strikers have failed to land even one shot on target. Rudd has the ball in his hands and prepares to kick out once again. Six minutes of injury time have now elapsed and surely Wright will blow his whistle as soon as Rudd connects. He doesn’t. Coventry sweeps forward, they receive a free kick and in the 97th minute  Franck Moussa, the visitors’ Belgian midfielder, lets fly with a stunning left foot volley that fires like a tracer bullet into the top corner of the net for the equaliser. The Coventry players are embraced by their ecstatic fans on the sideline. The ball is returned to the middle, Preston takes the kick and Wright finally calls an end to proceedings. Moussa scored with what was effectively the final kick of the game.

Preston fans are irate and hurl abuse at the match officials. Many rush to the corner where Wright  exits the field to vent their anger. The Preston players seem gutted at first before acknowledging the home crowd and trudging from the field. Graeme’s press pass allows him to interview the referees and he is taking up the opportunity to do so.

I make my way through the executive box, down the steps of the Tom Finney Stand and onto the walkway by the boundary fence so I can get to the room on the opposite side of the stadium where the post-match interviews are conducted. The Coventry manager is a former Scottish international. His name is Steve Pressley and naturally he is known as Elvis. He is being interviewed on the steps below the press room. He is beaming with delight and relief, and who wouldn’t be after escaping with a point as his team has just done.

As for me I am stunned and can scarcely believe what I have witnessed. Why did the match run for so long? Why did injury time clearly exceed the designated four minutes?

Preston’s David Buchanan gives his version of events.

He acknowledges Moussa’s “unbelievable strike”, but adds “we should have been back in the change rooms two minutes before it happened.” He describes conceding a late winner or equaliser as the worst feeling in football and how the draw feels more like a defeat.

A similar thing happened when the sides met at Sixfields Stadium back in August. Coventry scored two goals in extra time to snatch a 4-4 draw.

It is left to manager Simon Grayson to provide an explanation for what transpired.

It appears that Wright added two minutes more to injury time for the time wasting of the spectator who refused to return the ball to the field and for the substitution of Gallagher for King. The Preston bench clocked injury time at six minutes and 17 seconds. They expected the referee to call time when Rudd kicked out. Moussa scored in the extra seconds after six minutes.

Grayson is diplomatic. Preston should have been able to score an additional goal to take the edge off the game. On ninety per cent of occasions referees call it quits when time is up and a final attack breaks down with the ball in the hands of the goalkeeper. Tonight it didn’t happen that way. Declan Rudd could do little about Moussa’s outstanding strike. Preston will have its turn to snare an injury time winner or equaliser.

Grayson heads for the door but I have one more question for him.

“Simon, do you think that in the light of the controversy generated tonight that the Football League should consider appointing independent timekeepers and a siren system to complete games?”

“Well, we could certainly learn a thing or two from the way that other games like rugby are played. It might help referees to concentrate on their refereeing late in games rather than checking their watches. Thanks ladies and gentlemen.”

One can only sow a seed. It seems to me that in a country that gave Doctor Who to the world there is a multitude of time lords on the football pitches of England. Surely it’s asking too much of referees to be time keepers as well. There is too much discretion, too much that is imprecise, in a game where results hinging on single goals can make or break the careers of managers, players and administrators. Not to mention the bitter pill that the fans have to swallow when it goes against you while you’re waiting desperately for the umpire to put the whistle to his lips.

Does it take an outsider like me to raise these issues?

Graeme has invited me to visit the college next week. I’ll take the Lancaster bus up Garstang Road next Wednesday to witness at first hand how his program is changing young lives.

Then I’ll ask him what the referee said after the game.

 

 

Comments

  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks John Study wise is a area were AFL clubs and the game in general encourages players to participate for the future even if it is just a subject or 2 and then convert to full-time if the player is delisted . Have never understood why there are not independent exact time keeping performed in soccer in a sport seemingly open to corruption surely at least this is 1 way to minimise the risk and far more professional than a ref seemingly adding on what they like

  2. Ah love it. Umpires/referees given a bit of subjective licence to punish actions outside of the spirit of the rules. Preston ‘did a Broad/Pietersen’ and got called for time wasting.
    Should be more of it.
    Lovely piece as always John

  3. Peter Fuller says

    In the many years I have followed soccer, it has always amazed me how haphazard and arbitrary is the time-keeping. This is especially an issue when a single score is so often decisive, compared to other codes. I’m very much of the view that the ref has too much on his plate, so John’s simple solution seems a no-brainer. It also gives rise to conspiracy theories about referees being susceptible to influence by the Alex Fergusons of the world. “United scored in the 6th minute of 4 minutes added time.”
    The difficulty seems to be that spectators are never clear on what counts as injury and stoppage time. Injuries which cause delay, substitutions, goal celebrations all seem to be considered unambiguously; less obvious instances, the ball boy doesn’t hand the ball back quickly (more typically incompetence than the occasional notorious examples of bastardry), the goalie hangs on to the ball, players don’t retreat from a free kick (50 metre penalty in Aussie Rules) seem a grey area.
    I guess the point needs to be made that the 4th official’s indicator is a minimum, and the ref still must make a judgment call. I always assume (particularly if my team is hanging on) to allow a minimum of an additional minute.

  4. Looks like you are getting bang for your buck over there, John!

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