Life’s a beachball, and then you die

Eight weeks in and Liverpool’s season might already be over – thanks, in part, to a little comedy intervention.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Things are not looking good. Four defeats on the trot and the suspicion among Liverpool fans that last season was Our Big Chance to win the league for the first time in decades and we blew it is getting stronger by the day. You start to get the distinct impression that it’s not going to be your year when you lose a game to a goal scored by a beach ball.

For those of you who don’t follow English football, or have been holidaying on Mars for the past few days, Liverpool lost 1-0 at Sunderland on Saturday. The only goal of the game came about when a young Reds fan punched a Liverpool novelty beach ball on to the pitch before kick-off. Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina spotted it and put it inside the goal netting out of harm’s way. Or so he thought.

By the time Sunderland launched an attack, the wind had blown the ball a few yards out in front of Reina’s goal. When the ball was played across the penalty area, Sunderland’s Darren Bent took a shot which was heading directly for Reina, only for the football to hit the beach ball. The beach ball went harmlessly wide of the goal, with Reina making an instinctive momentary move towards it, while the match ball passed the goalkeeper on the other side. Despite Reina’s protestations, the goal was allowed to stand.

Watch the goal below:

Reina will no doubt know in future to deflate passing beach balls, and not to entrust them to the whim of goal netting. But the real debate after the game was: Did the ref get it right? A queue of former officials lined up to say he had blundered. Former Premier League referee Jeff Winter said that, on the evidence available to him, the goal should not have stood. ‘By the letter of the law, it is outside interference’, said Winter, ‘and a drop-ball should have been where the incident occurred’. Winter added, ‘you have to wonder how the referee and his assistants missed it’. Presumably they had Arsene Wenger’s old specs on.

The beach ball was quickly becoming the most controversial ‘outside agent’ since Carlos Tevez’s former owner, Kia Joorabchian. Yet the Premier League defended the match referee, Mike Jones: ‘The beach ball was an inanimate object so the referee should have stopped the game as soon as he was aware it was on the field of play. However, the difficulty would be if he didn’t see it until it was struck by the match ball.’ This is a rather bizarre justification. Jones must have seen the beach ball before the goal was scored. So the excuse for allowing the goal would appear to be his inability to get his whistle to his lips before the match ball went in.

I wonder if that could be extended to everyday life, so that stuff would only be illegal if a policeman had specifically told you not to do it. ‘Sorry, officer, but you’re too late. I had clearly smashed the car window and removed the sat nav before you shouted “Stop, thief!” and therefore my ownership of the aforementioned navigational device cannot now be questioned. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to dash if I’m going to get to Cash Converters before it closes.’ Or maybe I’m just bitter.

Whatever the laws may say, this was a bad result for Liverpool. Every disaster deserves a conspiracy theory. One, apparently serious, suggestion was that the young lad concerned had been handed the Beach ball of Death by a Sunderland ballboy. Others suggested the malign influence of Liverpool’s title rivals.

It is clear, however, watching that clip over and over again – as you are wont to if you’re writing an article about the subject – that the boy in question is really very pleased with himself after punching that beach ball, little knowing the calamity that was about to befall his team due to his senseless actions. The only wonder is that a lynchmob of fellow supporters hasn’t been formed. But perhaps the reason it hasn’t is because Liverpool fans know their team has only got itself to blame.

To his credit, Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez didn’t moan about his team’s misfortune. ‘It was a special situation, but we didn’t play well and so I don’t want to talk about that – we made some mistakes, we gave the ball away and we couldn’t take our chances. These things happen.’ Without his star players, Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool lack quality while Benitez’s major summer signing, Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani, has still to kick a ball for the first team since undergoing ankle surgery. Meanwhile, the team’s normally sturdy defence has been far more vulnerable than usual, with the usually reliable Jamie Carragher looking out of sorts.

There’s also the transfer budget. Benitez might have forked out a combined £40million for Aquilani and Glen Johnson, but he almost matched that by selling Xabi Alonso to Réal Madrid. While Benitez is trying to balance the books, rubbish teams like Manchester City and Spurs have been spending money like they’re running some kind of football-led economic stimulus package. That said, even John Maynard Keynes would have balked at £24million for Joleon Lescott, no matter how much ‘effective demand’ it was creating in the Goodison Park area.

Still, it’s only October and the season isn’t over yet. United were crap at the start of last season, but then went on a good run to win the title while everyone else faltered. And the recent defeats have, individually, not been too terrible. Losing at Stamford Bridge is no great crime, while losing to Fiorentina, or any Italian team away from home in the Champions League, is understandable enough, even if Benitez described it as the team’s worst performance since he took charge. Sunderland were very unlucky not to beat United the week before, suggesting they’re not that bad a team. It’s just that four defeats on the trot looks a bit, well, crap.

As for beach ball boy, I’m starting to know how he feels. On Tuesday night, Liverpool threw away a lead against Olympique Lyonnais in the Champions League. The next day I had to sit on the train into work looking at headlines like ‘Liverpool left reeling by Lyons knockout blow’. For the record, I don’t know the town – different side of the family, it’s nothing to do with me, guv…

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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spiked-issue: Sport

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