Football: Mackrell's old-fashioned gesture too high a price to pay
Friday 24 December 1999
We live in an age when ministers cling seedily to office, when batsmen don't walk, when cheating is merely a crude synonym for "getting away with it", when the notion of resignation has become rather quaint and old-fashioned.
And yet here is a bloke who has made himself responsible for a tiny administrative error (an error which, incidentally, was in practice almost certainly not his) and, because of its admittedly sizeable repercussions, has decided to clear his desk.
Presumably, you're acquainted, by now, with the facts. If not... Omoyinmi, a fringe West Ham player, was introduced as a very late substitute in last week's Worthington Cup tie against Aston Villa. He barely had a kick; he wasn't involved in the ultimately decisive penalty shoot-out; if you watched the highlights on the box he only figured as a "graphic" at the bottom of the screen. But, because, during a loan spell, he had already turned out in the competition for Gillingham, he shouldn't have played at all.
The tie, which West Ham won, now has to be replayed. A reversal of the original result would cost the Hammers their place in the semi-final... the chance of a first major final for 19 years... the prospect of re-entry into European competition... a lot of money.
Strictly speaking, they've been lucky. Many argue, with validity, that there was a case for kicking them out of the competition altogether. Personally, I equate their offence to being "offside - not interfering with play". Yes, they infringed a rule, but with innocent ignorance and in such a way as to have no meaningful effect on the tie. A big fine and a slap on the wrist would have sufficed. Incompetence needn't be punished as harshly as deceit. Aston Villa have done nothing to merit their reprieve and, deep down, they must know it.
Anyway, someone at Upton Park (or, less probably, Gillingham, whose communications on the issue we must presume to be reliable) must be hiding a guilty conscience. At a Premiership club (especially one with a particularly bright set of young players, many of whom are out on loan) the manager is entitled to feel that his administrative staff will keep him up to date with who is eligible for what.
So Harry Redknapp is understandably seething. Somebody has let him down. He is within touching distance of his professional dream: leading out West Ham - the club for which he has spent his life cheering, playing and coaching - at Wembley. And now it might be taken away.
Even so, the worst that has happened here is that an individual has made a mistake. There was no malice aforethought. No intent to cheat or mislead. We call it human error. It's the phenomenon which leads, every day of our lives, to motorway pile-ups, financial crashes, industrial accidents etc. In this case, it has caused a footballer to play a few minutes of a match he shouldn't have.
Graham Mackrell has an excellent reputation in football. For some years he served Sheffield Wednesday with impeccable efficiency and was an outstanding contributor to the smooth running of Euro 96. West Ham would certainly have considered it a coup to have filled their vacancy with him six months ago. Furthermore, on the handful of occasions that I've crossed his path, he's seemed a thoroughly likeable chap. His self-imposed martyrdom strikes me as such a pity.
West Ham's administrative buck stops at his desk. Probably, the piece of paper implying Omoyimni's eligibility never did. But, because he's the front-man, Mackrell resigns and plunges his household into pre-Christmas gloom and uncertainty. Furthermore, his conduct sets such an impossibly unsustainable example. Its extraordinarily admirable, but where does it lead us?
Should a goalkeeper resign for dropping a cross? Should a penalty-taker walk for missing the target? Should a referee resign for a bad decision? Often these mistakes are very costly. But, no-one makes them on purpose.
The appeal of sport is in its humanity. Succeeding and failing; all for one and one for all; shared responsibility within a team; recovering with one man's personal strength what has been lost through another's weakness. May I venture that Mackrell's inflated sense of honour over-compensates for his (perceived) aberration.
Perhaps, he has taken such drastic action out of a realisation that some of West Ham's less sympathetic followers, having pinned the error on him, will find it hard to forget. As a result, he may feel that he can never be comfortable among them again. If so, that's a real shame and his persecutors would do well to recall not only that "to err is human" but that "to forgive is divine".
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