When is a goal not a goal?

The Blue and White issue 2When is a goal not a goal?
(And other reasonably fundamental questions.)

A version of this article was originally published in issue 2 of The Blue & White.

You know that Shankly quote, “Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better”? Well it’s obviously true. This is game that can essentially be boiled down to kicking a bit of dead cow between two posts, and yet we discuss, analyse and argue football in its minutae. I’m culpable for writing this and you’re culpable for reading it. We are Shankly’s “people who should know better”.

But we love it, don’t we? We love our Opta stats and our slow motion replays, our formation chalkboards and our books about tactics. Most of all, I think, we love our heated pub debates. There are few things that get the blood pumping like a really good argument about football. And, from pre-match drinkers to television pundits, from football bloggers to fanatical Tweeters, if there’s one thing we can all agree to agree on about football it’s that we can’t agree on anything.

Forget about the offside rule and active and passive play, half the time we can’t even agree on what constitutes a goal and what doesn’t. Did the ball cross the line? The forward says it did, but the defender says it didn’t. The referee was too far away to see, and the linesman’s looking baffled. Was it a goal? No one rightly knows. What are we to do? FOOTBALL HAS DESCENDED INTO ANARCHY!

How has this happened? How has even the most fundamental building block of the game of football become so complicated? Well, of course, it hasn’t. Goal line controversies have been around as long as the game has. They were arguing about them in newspaper columns in the 1880s, and there was one in a certain match in 1966 that’s still argued about today. Real proper scientists have spent years trying to decide whether Geoff Hurst’s World Cup Final strike crossed the line, and they still can’t properly agree.

More recently, there was Frank Lampard’s strike against Germany at the 2010 World Cup, which was obviously over the line, but obviously wasn’t a goal due to an officiating error. But others aren’t so cut-and-dried. Consider another Lampard shot, at Stamford Bridge in April last season, fumbled onto and perhaps over the line by Spurs keeper Heurelho Gomes. It was a goal – the record books show that. But had the ball crossed the line?

TV replays – arbitrators of football controversies since even before Sky invented football – were inconclusive. Stan Collymore of TalkSport was so perplexed he began arguing with himself. He didn’t know whether the ball had crossed the line or not, or whether the referee had been right or wrong in allowing the goal, and his replay monitor was either too small or too far away, but – whatever – he was furious.

“Get David Elleray on the phone!” he yelled. “Where’s the producer? Get David Elleray on the phone! He’ll know!”

History suggests the retired referee might not have been the best man to ask. In the late 1980s, as part of a television experiment, the former Harrow schoolmaster and Holland’s Pies advert star was miked for sound during a match between Arsenal and Millwall. Of course there was a goal line controversy, with Tony Adams claiming that his toe-poke after a goalmouth scramble had crossed the line. Elleray’s verdict? “Play on!”

Adams legged after Elleray and yelled “Cheat!” He was swiftly called to order. “You may call me useless,” Elleray told the Arsenal skipper, “but I am not a cheat.” (“I was very emotional,” Adams later explained, “but it did fucking cross the line, didn’t it?”)

So what are we to do? “Goal line technology!” some will yell. But we’re trying to simplify things here, not add a load of wires and sensors and infra-red beams. I am so utterly against the introduction of goal line technology that I can’t be bothered to mention it beyond this sentence.

As for the introduction of a third and fourth linesman (or ‘additional assistant referees’ – even the job title has become over-complicated), why stop there? Why not have ten assistant referees, or a hundred?

The Laws of the Game handbook is quite clear on what constitutes a goal: “A goal is scored when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, between the goalposts and under the crossbar.” A big problem, of course, is that the ball is spherical, offering less definition when crossing the line. Perhaps we should play with a cube (although that would make it even less likely that Emile Heskey would ever get a header on target).

We need some common sense, and the man to provide that, I think, is the late Denis Howell MP. Howell was a Football League referee in the 1960s, and he wrote a book about the profession, called “Soccer Refereeing”. He seems to have been a very straightforward chap, as evidenced by the opening line of the book: “I have always wanted to write a book, and in truth, that is the main reason why this one has been written.”

The book represents an opportunity for Howell to (very politely) express his frustration at the “sad spectacle” of players and managers criticising officials. (One unnamed top-flight manager writes of Howell on his match report sheet, “We have paid this referee his fee of 3/6 and have been grossly overcharged!”) For Howell, the game is simple and the rules are clear. Over-complication and arguments are only “inviting trouble”.

When is a goal not a goal? Diagram from Soccer Refereeing by Denis Howell MP

Although Howell admits that the question of whether or not the ball has crossed the line can be the “most difficult of all matters to determine”, he offers some simple advice. “The ball has got to be some way over the line before a goal is scored. In fact, all of the ball has to be over all of the line.” His italics, not mine. “That means that about 8 ½ inches of the ball (the diameter) has to be seen to be over the line. As the line is 5 inches wide this means 13 ½ inches from the front of the goal line to the back of the ball before a goal is scored.”

All of which sounds a bit like an impenetrable geometry problem from a pre-metric maths text book, but ignoring the specifics of the measurements, the crucial words here are surely: “has to be seen to be over the line.” In that instance, the italics are mine. If it isn’t entirely obvious that the ball has crossed the goal line then it isn’t a goal. Play on, and maybe try kicking it a bit harder next time.

It’s unlikely that Howell’s advice will satisfy the majority of fans and pundits, or Stan Collymore, and maybe that’s a good thing. Personally I quite like it when the officials get a goal line decision wrong. Because I can watch managers fume, and hear pundits argue, and read angry blogs, and Tweet my own half-baked opinions, and have one of those blood-pumping arguments in the pub about it.

Maybe football’s better when everything isn’t cut and dried. If football really was as simple as Bill Shankly claimed, then we wouldn’t have anything to argue about. And where would be the fun in that?

Find me on Twitter: @paulbrownUK