Jim White

Whatever happened to sportsmanship?

Jim White

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Unless Coco the Clown (or, as he is known in the Newcastle area, Mike Ashley) succeeds Brian Barwick as the FA's Chief Executive, it is unlikely that football officialdom will manage to produce as much comedy all season as it did at Watford on Saturday.

For those who missed what is surely destined to become one of the most played clips on YouTube, it went roughly like this. Reading were attacking and the ball bounced around within the Watford penalty area. There was a shot at goal, which took a deflection and was ballooning out of play, missing the Watford's right hand post by about three feet. At which point Reading's Noel Hunt hooked it back into play and Nigel Bannister - the linesman - raised his flag.

Assuming that it was for a goal kick, the referee Stuart Attwell awarded Watford the restart. Bannister however, called him over and said it was a goal. From where he was standing he thought the ball had crossed the line the other side of the post. Attwell changed his decision, awarded the goal and all hell was unleashed from the Watford bench, the manager Aidy Boothroyd doing a fine impression of John Cleese as Basil Fawlty faced with a car that wouldn't start.

There has been much debate subsequently, with those advocating the introduction of video technology suggesting that this was the prime example of its necessity. Actually, you didn't need video technology to come up with the right decision here. A pair of eyes would have helped. Plus a bit of common sense. If - as Bannister reckoned - the ball was heading into the Watford net, what one earth was Hunt doing scooping it back into play?

More pertinent in all this was the behaviour of the Reading players and bench. They all knew a goal hadn't been scored. None of them celebrated and they returned to the centre circle looking thoroughly sheepish. At this point, had a jot of Corinthian spirit been shared between them, they should have done something.

Their captain should have approached the referee and pointed out his error. If the ref had insisted that he had to stand by his decision, then the Reading players should have stood aside as one and let Watford equalise the phantom goal. Reading, however, preferred not to look the gift horse in the mouth and proceeded to play on, cheerful to be handed their point.

Later, Steve Coppell, the club's decent and thoughtful manager, said he would be perfectly happy to replay the game if the authorities felt it necessary. But that was never likely to happen and indeed didn't; the Football League had to stand by its officials, otherwise their authority would be horribly compromised. In short, the only people who could have seen justice done were the Reading players in the immediate aftermath of the cock up.

There are those who say that in these money driven days, where points - particularly in the Championship - take on Premier value, that could never happen. Wider values of sportsmanship have been washed out of the game by the urgent financial need to progress up the table. But there is precedent. And it was set in the Premier League.

Remember Paolo di Canio? A man once suspended for pushing a referee to the ground, his was not the first name to spring to mind in the context of sportsmanship. But in a Premier League game in 2000 he reminded everyone that there is a moral code underpinning the game.

There were less than five minutes to go in the encounter at Goodison between Everton and di Canio's West Ham. The score was 1-1. In a tangle at the edge of the Everton area, the home keeper Paul Gerrard fell to the ground clutching his knee, which had been horribly twisted in a challenge with the Hammers' Freddie Kanoute. The ball broke to West Ham's Trevor Sinclair who crossed into the box where Di Canio was presented with an open goal. Instead of scoring the winner, however, the Italian caught the ball and pointed to his prone rival.

It was a magnificent gesture for which he earned the approbation of everyone. Except possibly his manager Harry Redknapp, who was spotted by the cameras looking thoroughly cheesed off in his technical area.

The point is, even eight years on, Di Canio is remembered as the man whose principles rose above the pragmatic requirement of three points. Reading's players had the opportunity to join him in the memory on Saturday. But they blew it. And never mind the need for a video ref, what the incident demonstrated above all was the need not to forget that the game has a soul.

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