The slow death of sportsmanship

A tuesday night League Cup early-round tie between two Championship sides who’d probably rather have been resting their players ahead of the weekend’s fixtures. Hardly the natural backdrop for the talking point of the round – and yet it was Huish Park that played host to the latest scene in the painfully slow pantomime that is the death of sportsmanship in football.

For those that missed it, controversy struck late in the tie. Birmingham were minutes away from winning the tie when the keeper kicked the ball out so that team-mate Dan Burn, apparently injured, could be treated. Rather than return the ball, cheeky scamp Byron Webster spotted the chance to turn this match that barely anyone was concerned about into something special – deftly lobbing the ball over keeper Doyle to take the tie into extra time as Birmingham players switched off.

With Lee Clark retaining his habitual dullness and containing his mood, Yeovil boss Gary Johnson had two options: view the incident as an unsporting act that had to be quickly remedied, or view it as a just punishment for a team trying to wind down the clock with gamesmanship. The former would have seen most in the game praise Johnson’s honesty; the latter, his conviction.

In the event, he took a third option – acting neither swiftly nor decisively. Content with the situation that gave his team a late equaliser to force extra-time, Johnson instead waited 20 minutes until his side had taken the lead before any hint of guilt manifested itself. It was only then that Lee Novak was allowed to walk in a goal with all players remaining stationary. All bar Chris Burke, who escorted Novak up the pitch in either a vain hope Novak would square it at the last minute, or out of lack of trust that Wayne Hennessey wouldn’t try a last-minute Byron manoeuvre and save the ball on the line.

The gesture appeared wholly tokenistic and seemed designed to save face for Johnson, rather than be born from a sense of sportsmanship. Had the scores remained level and Yeovil not taken the lead, would Johnson have gifted Birmingham a goal to start the 2nd half of extra time? Would he have instructed a player to sky a ball over to hand Birmingham an instant advantage in the shootout? One assumes James McAllister was not under instruction when he hit his woeful penalty over the bar…

This was similarly the case when I was at Highbury in 1999 for Sheffield United’s FA Cup tie in which the ball had been kicked out so that Lee Morris, whose legs throughout his career had the durability of a pair of breadsticks, could be treated. Kanu (“unfamiliar with our customs”) latched onto a throw-in meant for keeper Alan Kelly, before crossing for Marc Overmars (very familiar with our customs) to tap home. At the time, Arsenal had been on the back foot in the game – Marcelo had just equalised for the Blades and looked set for a home replay. History will recall that Arsene Wenger “graciously offered a replay”. A replay at Highbury. When key players he had rested, such as Tony Adams and the in-form Nicolas Anelka, could be restored to the line-up. Such generosity.

Johnson himself is no stranger to these situations. It was in another League Cup tie back in 2004 against Plymouth in which Yeovil took the lead, albeit unintended, when his son Lee overhit returning the ball to the Pilgrims keeper. This was perhaps far more clear-cut a situation, but given the speed at which Johnson acted to restore panity, you have to wonder why it took so long for him to reconsider in this week’s game. Taking immediate action would have handed Birmingham the tie and save them from a gruelling 30 minutes of extra time. Should Birmingham tire and lose their game this weekend, Clark will be justifiably pointing to events this week as a contributing factor.

The sad truth is that you can understand Johnson’s reasons for thinking ‘to hell with sportsmanship’, because he’s been on the receiving end lately where players seemingly feign injury to waste time. This isn’t new – it’s been creeping into the game for years. So while you can understand Johnson’s frustrations, it can’t justify the act of ignoring the game’s customs.

What would be fairer? There has to be a better way of reducing the scope for this rule to be abused. Part of it could be avoided by the players themselves just kicking the ball out of play as far away from their goal as possible – rather than like last night tapping it out about 40 yards from the goal. There are two obvious improvements:

  • leave it up to the ref to decide how play should restart and ensure that this is communicated to both teams when necessary
  • stop the clock that is visible for all fans, as happens in rugby, for stoppages so that it’s clear that attempts to waste time are eliminated

Football is in a sorry state when players and managers can no longer be trusted to correct these freak occurrences. Sadly, the time has now come for this responsibility to be taken away from those directly involved. Rather than continue to witness the slow death these customs of sportsmanship have been enduring, let’s put the whole thing out of its misery.

Written by @josephclift

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