Offside, 21 March

They call it the beautiful game, but there's nothing like a mass brawl to spice up a dull Saturday afternoon.

Duleep Allirajah

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They call it the beautiful game, but sometimes the ugly side of football is just as thrilling. Indeed, there’s nothing like a bad-tempered game, garnished with a mass brawl and a flurry of red cards to spice up a dull Saturday afternoon.

For sheer entertainment value the ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion on 16 March 2001 had it all: three goals, a mass brawl, three red cards, a head-butt, a scuffle in the tunnel, bitter recriminations…the lot. The only thing missing was a full-time result. With eight minutes remaining, and West Brom leading 3-0, referee Eddie Wolstenholme abandoned the match after Sheffield United were reduced to six men – three having been sent off and two more taken off injured. The league rules require a referee to stop a game if a team is reduced to less than seven players.

In the ensuing war of words, United were accused of feigning injuries to get the game abandoned. ‘I have been in professional football for 26 years and have never witnessed anything as disgraceful as this’, fumed West Brom manager Gary Megson. ‘I’m not naming names, but there was a certain person on their bench telling people to come off and go down, in the knowledge that the game would not be allowed to finish’, said Megson.

‘Gary is known to be one of the biggest moaners around’, countered United’s manager Neil Warnock, who vehemently denied any foul play. ‘The way it has all come out so far, you would think I was guilty of committing more crimes than Bin Laden’, said Warnock from a secret bunker in Sheffield.

While it is unusual for a football match to be abandoned due to too few players, it is not unprecedented. In 1997, Ecuador had five players red-carded in a ‘friendly’ against Uruguay, forcing the game to be halted. More recently, a ‘friendly’ between Portugal and Angola in November 2001 was stopped after the African side were reduced to six men – four having been dismissed and one taken off injured. Also in 2001, a Mexican championship match between Pachuca and Puebla was called off after Pachuca had four men sent off and a fifth injured.

But all these incidents are nothing compared to a Paraguayan league match between Sportivo Ameliano and General Caballero in June 1993. When two Sportivo players were dismissed, a mass punch-up ensued which ended in the referee sending off a further 18 players, including the entire Sportivo team, and stopping the match.

It looks like Neil Warnock will escape a FA misconduct rap, so we can only speculate what really happened that turbulent afternoon at Bramall Lane. But what nobody has stopped to ask is why we need the seven players’ rule in the first place. After all, if a team loses five or more men to red cards, why shouldn’t they be subjected to a multi-goal humiliation? Technically, each national football association is free to decide what constitutes the minimum number of players (though in practice, seven is the norm). So the English FA could, in theory, reduce the minimum number to less than seven.

Personally, I think the minimum should be one player. As long as there’s one man standing there is still a contest. Yes, it might be an uneven contest, but isn’t that the whole point of sending players off – to give one side an advantage? Four players left? So what? Let the goal deluge commence!

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spiked-issue: Sport

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