How often does an FA Youth Cup game get national coverage? I’m not talking ages old clips of a young Wayne Rooney or David Beckham or John Terry replayed in some ‘before they were famous’ programme while non-entity talking heads try to be witty, I mean actual coverage of the events of a game. Today various tabloids carried reports on Newport County’s Monday night tie with Bath City at Spytty Park, a few of them included pictures, most of the stories covered the key points of a sparky match, won comprehensively by the young Welsh side by five goals to nil.
How come? Well, its all down to the referee’s decision to dismiss six members of the Bath squad because of a row over pants. Some of the Bath players had white thermals under their red shorts, thus contravening a little known, but perfectly valid, law of the game. It’s there in the FIFA rules: “if undershorts or tights are worn, they must be of the same main colour as the shorts.” It’s daft but it’s a rule, it isn’t one which is very well known but who knows all the rules inside out? Likewise the reaction of the Bath bench and players was equally daft and led to a series of red cards for dissent.
While two of the Bath City Academy boys were changing their underwear on the side of the pitch, Newport took advantage and scored, twice. This sparked the row, which saw five players and manager Billy Clark sent off. Bath chairman Manda Rigby, speaking to the BBC the day after the game, rightly pointed out that asking the players to change their pants by the side of the pitch was not entirely appropriate for a youth game. She said: “It was probably a little humiliating for them to strip down and take their underpants off. So you can understand that their team-mates and our manager were a little frustrated. I would have hoped there would have been some common sense. ”I would have hoped someone would have thought the purpose behind this rule isn’t to make a 16-year-old strip in front of a crowd.”
The appeal for ‘common sense,’ probably triggered an alarm somewhere in the bowels of the Daily Mail offices on its own, without the added pants element. Some might push Ms Rigby’s comments further and make the point that considering it was a youth game and the players were all under 18 making them change by the side of the pitch skates on thin ice in relation to FA Best Practice Guidance on child protection and safeguarding in relation to changing rooms, which states: “If a child feels uncomfortable changing or showering in public then no pressure should be placed on them to do so.”
Others might question why the match officials didn’t check the team’s kit before kick off? Another valid point and one which the joint investigation into the game by the English and Welsh FAs will most likely look at. And it is also fair to question how the reported outbursts from players and staff fit into the FA’s Respect agenda. However, none of that makes as good a headline as a row about underwear. But scratch beneath the tabloid hysteria (thanks to the Sun for the glorious headline: This referee is undercrackers) and the whole pants element seems like a red herring, or in this context a white herring hidden under a pair of red shorts. The episode has proved to be a nice bit of publicity for Bath City, who let’s not forget have a first team who are seriously struggling somewhere near the foot of the Blue Square Premier.
The match was tweeted live on the official feed and the tweets about pants were quickly picked up and RT’d. Ms Rigby’s articulate appearance on breakfast radio and the ever-hungry ears of local news agency South West News ensured the story went national. It’s quirky enough to rise above the Labour Conference/ economic doom stories which the tabloids don’t really want to touch, gives the subs a chance to roll out some pants puns and fills a gap on the page. I’m not questioning how newsworthy it is, I’d have run it if I was a news editor. But it has ensured what could be quite a negative episode for Bath; lack of discipline at a youth game, young players sent off for dissent (and so on) has been turned into a moment in the spotlight and a chance to criticise the referee while deflecting attention away from the six red cards.
Whether the referee was right or wrong becomes irrelevant – without his actions Bath wouldn’t be in the Sun today, the paper of choice of your Sky-watching, beer swilling, pub dwelling plastic fan who probably hadn’t heard of Bath City until they read some story about pants today. Its the old adage, all publicity is good publicity – which Bath learned last year, to their cost, isn’t always the case, remember when they offered Bath’s Polish population reduced entry and got shot down by the tabloids for being ‘racist.’ Still almost blanket coverage in the red-tops is still something most clubs would kill for. But back at Twerton Park the fans main concern on their online forum is with the first team and their results, or lack of, Bath City may have had their moment in the Sun today (and how many of the stories mentioned the first team by the way?) but come tomorrow they will still be out of the FA Youth Cup and still be struggling in the league.
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