It began on Friday evening, with confused glances as the teams took to the pitch for the match between Rochdale and FC United of Manchester with the referee holding an orange ball. A fireworks display just up the road from the ground meant that there was a thin layer of smoke hovering over Spotland. Was this the possible reason for using a ball which, under floodlights and a certain degree of what could best be described as “murk”, wasn’t far short of invisible? It certainly seemed like an odd choice, and supporters of lower division and non-league clubs spent much of the weekend wondering what was going on as the ball was used at all ties.
The answer, of course, was marketing. The orange ball, which spent its weekend largely being disparaged by anyone that took one glance at it, is the Umbro Hi Vis Neospark. The usual claims are all there – it utilises laser technology for a “truer” flight, and so on – but none of this amounts to a hill of beans if people watching the matches are having difficulty even seeing it. The blurb makes reference to “classic orange colour that inspires memories of famous FA Cup encounters from the past”, all of which points to somebody at either Umbro or the FA deciding that it would be a good idea to introduce an orange ball for this competition.
The idea of “retro” may be appealing to marketing types, but there is a good reason behind many technological innovations within the game. Without them, referees would still signal stoppages in play by waving a handkerchief and goalposts would still have tape across the top of them instead of a crossbar. So it has been with the technology of the football itself. When some clubs first experimented with floodlights in the nineteenth century, balls were soaked in whitewash in order to make them more visible. It wasn’t, however, until the 1950s and 1960s that colour of the football changed from deep, mahogany brown or orange to white, and the key motivator behind the change was television.
On black and white television sets, a dark coloured ball was next to useless. White balls were more visible to the television viewer, and for the 1970 World Cup the Adidas Telstar took this innovation to its next logical step by using black and white panels in order to make the ball even more visible on black and white television sets. The orange ball became something of a collectors item, only to be seen on now covered pitches in the depths of winter, and even these have become more and more rare with the increase of undersoil heating technology in the late 1970s. The latest “innovation” has seen the Premier League switch to a luminous yellow ball during the winter, and it has been claimed that this is “more visible” than a white ball, but this is counter-intuitive to everything that we see at matches themselves.
Now, the FA Cup has got involved. Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of watching three full matches using the Umbro Hi Vis Neo and, fortuitously, these three matches were all played in broadly different conditions. The Rochdale vs FC United match was played in poor visibility and at night, and the ball was next to invisible. On Saturday afternoon, the match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Woking was played in overcast conditions, but during the day. The visibility of the ball was better than it had been the evening before, but not by a great deal. On Sunday lunchtime, the match between Southport and Sheffield Wednesday was played in bright sunshine and visibility of the ball was again improved, but still left a lot to be desired.
It was pretty clear – and this is so obvious that it barely needs stating – that the biggest factor behind the extent of how visible this ball was for the crowd (and, presumably, therefore the players as well) was the level of sunlight. Equipment manufacturers have claimed before that players can see the ball milliseconds more quickly in various different colours, but whether we should trust this research is a different matter altogether. The cynical response to such research would be to think that this has got far more to do with selling different coloured footballs as merchandise than it has to do with visibility for players or spectators. On the evidence of last weekend, the argument that the ball being used for the FA Cup this season is more visible than a white ball seems far-fetched, to say the least.
Interestingly, though, a quick Google for “Umbro Hi-Vis NeoSpark” doesn’t yield any results, which would indicate that the balls aren’t available for sale just yet. This, we could argue, was a missed trick by Umbro, since with the judicious application of a sharp knife and a candle the Hi-Vis Neospark would have made a convenient replacement for a pumpkin over halloween. The ball has come in for some criticism already, with Cambridge United (whose Paul Carden stated that, “It’s orange and it resembles kicking a pumpkin. All the lads have been saying it feels very light, so we’ll see how it goes”) and Bournemouth, who still managed to put five goals past Tranmere Rovers with one on Saturday, already expressing their concerns over it.
The FA Cup has been under siege in recent years ffrom those that would seek to disparage it, and there are many vested interests that would seek to continue this debasement of the world’s oldest cup competition. Clubs from the Premier League and the Championship do not get involved in the competition until January, so this story may not get a great deal of attention before then. This means that the FA and Umbro do still have the opportunity to set this straight, should they choose to. The alternative is running the risk of ridicule in January, when the biggest clubs enter this year’s competition. The FA Cup has already shown many signs of the green shoots of recovery this season, from supporters sick to the back teeth of the avarice and predictability of the Premier League. Mockery from the tournament’s naysayers won’t fatally damage it, but it seems unlikely that it will help, either.
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