Football: Why Blackpool's equaliser gave no pleasure

A controversial weekend goal highlighted the need to clarify the game's unwritten rules.
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The Independent Online
SATELLITE TELEVISION is a mixed blessing for late-night channel- flickers as you invariably stumble across something which keeps you awake until the early hours. Monday evening was typical except that, instead of a ghoulish horror film, it was The Football League Review which produced the most unsettling viewing.

This admirable programme tends to be seen only by insomniacs, anoraks and lower-division supporters, but one hopes the powers that be at Lancaster Gate saw this episode. For mid-way through the programme, the customary flow of stunning goals and defensive howlers was interrupted by the sort of act which gives football a bad name. In an incident reminiscent of Marc Overmars' infamous goal against Sheffield United in last season's FA Cup, Blackpool scored a late equaliser after their Second Division opponents, Gillingham, had kicked the ball out to allow a Blackpool player to receive treatment.

The act itself is depressing enough, but what was disturbing is that, unlike the Overmars goal which was largely due to Nwankwo Kanu's confusion on his Arsenal debut and ended in bonhomie thanks to Arsene Wenger's spirit of fair play, this was done in cold blood and resulted in a simmering feud.

For those unaware of the incident the ball, instead of being returned to Gillingham, was crossed into the middle by the very experienced David Bardsley for John Murphy to elude an unprepared defence and head in. To compound the offence Bardsley had acted under the encouragement of his manager, Nigel Worthington, a man who should have known better.

The upshot was a sending-off for Peter Taylor, the Gillingham manager, who, like the former Blades boss Steve Bruce at Highbury in February, went berserk. Taylor is now likely to face a disrepute charge.

The Football Association is not well-disposed towards Taylor following his acrimonious sacking as England Under-21 coach in the summer but, while his fury cannot be condoned, it should be understood. "I don't often lose control but when an opposing manager does something against the rules it tests you to the limit," he said yesterday. "If it had been one of our players injured I could live with it but it was one of theirs, and we had possession."

Taylor seems certain to be summoned by the FA but he should not be alone. Worthington also has a case to answer. The Blackpool manager is reported to have incited Taylor after the goal and to have said later: "It's dog eat dog. You don't give the ball back to the opposition when you are 1- 0 down at home with 10 minutes to go."

Understandable? Not really, not in August when your team has three points from two games.

It all could have been prevented. In the wake of the Kanu-Overmars incident the FA should have instructed referees to penalise players who do not follow the convention. Under guidelines from Fifa, the game's world governing body, the referee could have halted play once it became obvious what Blackpool were up to. Even after the goal the Gillingham captain could have made a formal approach to the referee requesting it be struck off. However, once Gillingham kicked off again the goal became immutable.

In addition, under Law 12 a player can be cautioned for "unsporting behaviour". There cannot be a clearer example of such an offence and the players involved - and Worthington - should have been cautioned by the referee, David Pugh.

Neither Blackpool nor the FA would comment until Pugh's report had been received by the FA.

Long-term and observant readers will be aware of this correspondent's affection for Gillingham. However, while that has made me more aware of the incident it has not influenced my opinion. If Gillingham were the guilty party I would feel as ashamed as Arsenal fans in and around the press box did at Highbury before Wenger eased their embarrassment.

It may only be a convention, but kicking the ball out has become a custom from the Premiership to the Sunday leagues, and is one of the better developments to occur within the game in the last decade. If it is not upheld the likely consequences are both physical, as players with serious injury will suffer from not being treated quickly, and metaphysical, as the game will lose a little more of its self-respect. That it can ill-afford. It may be too late this time, but the FA should ensure there is no further repetition.