Football: In English football the cock-up theory is always the right one

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON SPORT'S STRANGE LAWS WITHIN LAWS
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The Independent Online
THERE are natural laws we didn't learn about at school.

For instance, if you are waiting for someone to phone you back, put a biscuit in your mouth. Hey bingo - the ringing tone.

And while science may now have given us a reason why bread always fall butter-side down, it still has nothing to say on the Dishwash Phenomenon, whereby every time you tip away the dirty water an unwashed teaspoon appears in the sink.

The advent of the automatic dishwasher has diminished the effect of this attritional occurrence on many lives.

But the new technology is not without its own spooky peculiarity - every clean load you unpack will contain at least one item which has to be washed again, whether that be a fork with egg on it, a bowl with cereal on it, or a pan with pasta in it. The devil is in the detail.

Similar mysterious forces are at work in the world of sport. Some of them simply have to be understood and accepted, and here I will speak briefly for those who write about sport.

The Law of Press Seats, for example, ensures that at most football grounds in this country, no more than two-thirds of those correspondents attending will have somewhere to sit. And the allocation of space for those fortunate enough to park their behinds follows suit, in that it is two-thirds of what is required.

At times, passing a scalding teapot down the line at The Dell or attempting to type at White Hart Lane with both elbows pinned to my sides and a radio commentator booming in my ear, I confess that I wonder about the laws.

Unhelpful thoughts, conspiracy theories, begin to cloud my outlook. Perhaps somebody meant it to be like this? Perhaps someone has put some thought into it?

Invariably, however, I manage to calm my fears by reflecting that this is English football, where the cock-up theory is always the right one.

Other unwritten sporting laws offer more pro-active - if I may use that rather fashionable term - possibilities. How, for instance, may one alter the course of a dull and perhaps goalless football match? In my experience, this can often be achieved by working out the goal difference of the sides involved and those teams immediately above and below them.

Once you have become engrossed in this activity, the game will flare into life and your attention will be diverted by a roar from the crowd and the sight of a ball coming to rest inside one of the nets.

At this point you will run through the journalist's five-point set response: Who? What? Where? Why? When? Some of these questions will then be answered by your colleagues.

Not that this principle is restricted to football. It is possible to bring about a decisive moment in any sport - tennis, athletics, cricket - merely by the act of inattention. Try it.

Other obvious manifestations of unwritten laws are apparent when one studies the field of play.

Over the years, I have gained much satisfaction from observing the Rule of the Game Tryer, something most obvious in - but by no means restricted to - the footballing arena.

Under this rule, a player can fail in every aspect of the game, but if he is seen to be giving his all - 100 per cent, good lad, team man, bulldog spirit - he earns the approval, even love, of the crowd.

Thus, presented with a chance of scoring, the Game Tryer will miss - and then clutch his head. That is important, because it shows he cares.

Later in the game, he will fail to anticipate a pass and then make a death-or-glory attempt to prevent the ball from going out of play for the opponents' throw-in. He will fail, but his efforts will be warmly applauded.

And so it goes on. Meanwhile the talented midfielder who disdains to sweat, or to be seen to sweat, is reviled, despite his consummate contributions. Even his home supporters will be inclined to turn on him the moment his passes or shots fail to zing to the appropriate spots.

Another law. How often have you seen it happen that a wrong which is allowed to stand is evened up in the course of a contest?

In tennis, a player falsely credited with an ace will, sooner or later, serve up a double- fault.

In football, the award of a dubious penalty will often be followed by the kick being missed, or the keeper making a save.

And look what happened after Alec Stewart dismissed Shivnarine Chanderpaul in the West Indies' first innings off a "catch" that bounced. With England in position to level the Test series, the heavens opened...

Now some people may dismiss the whole idea of laws within laws as being mere superstition. I submit that such scepticism is wide of the mark. Some mysterious things happen to hold good, however you argue it.

West Ham, for instance, always do well in the FA Cup when the play Arsenal. 1975 - beat Arsenal in the quarter-final, won the Cup. 1980 - beat Arsenal in the final. 1998...

OK. Scrub that immutable law.

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