It was, by any standards, the most bizarre moment of the football season so far, and it’s difficult to imagine that it will be bettered. During Saturday afternoon’s match in the Championship between Watford and Reading, a goal was awarded that was not only controversial but didn’t actually happen at all. The strangeness started after thirteen minutes of the match, when Stephen Hunt’s corner bounced off Peter Eustace and well wide of the Watford goal. Linesman Nigel Bannister called referee Stuart Atwell and advised him to award a goal, which he duly did. John-Joe O’Toole and Jon Harley were booked in the ensuing melee, but the goal stood.
First of all, then, the case for the defence for the referee. While the referee obviously has the final say in all matters of this nature, it is a natural reaction that if a linesman flags for a goal, a goal is given. The Watford team’s reaction was understandable, but this reaction would have been the same had the ball landed three feet over the line. It was a case of it being the defence that cried wolf. Secondly, Atwell showed considerable bravery in awarding Reading a clear penalty with three minutes to play. It would have been understandable had he sought to even things up by not giving a clear foul. The conversion of the penalty tied things up at 2-2, which was a strangely apt. No-one could complain too much, considering that things ended up even.
Professional Game Match Officials, the body that oversees professional refereeing in England, had a relatively level-headed (if self-preserving) outlook on things. “”According to the laws of the game, the decision of the referee regarding facts connected with play are final and that includes whether a goal is scored or not,” said the PGMO. “The referee cannot change that decision once the game has been restarted”. All true enough, but one can’t help but think that the much-trumpeted “Respect” campaign might just have been undermined somewhat. How long it will take Atwell or Bannister’s reputation to cover is open to question. They are currently booked in for some “professional counselling”. They might just need it.
As with any story that receives this level of media coverage, the press have been going all out to cover as many new angles as possible. Winners of the award for the simultaneously most obvious and most desperate angle on the story goes to Sky Sports News, who quoted Stoke City manager stating the case for video technology. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a balanced article in the wake of an incident such as that which took place last weekend, and it’s important not to forget that the biggest single beneficiaries of introducing video footage would be… Sky Sports themselves, who would complete the circle of integrating television into the game itself. Ultimately, what we stand to lose should this technology be introduced is moments such as this, which should serve to remind us of the human nature of the game – an aspect of it which continues to set football apart from all other sports and doubtlessly contributes to its worldwide popularity. And after all, what happened at Vicarage Road on Saturday was hardly the end of the world, was it?