the real fa cup

Stand Up, If You Hate The Pig!

FA Cup 1st Round Replay 2011/12

I was determined to write lots about the Bath mascot tonight; Bladud the pig. That plan was well and truly scuppered by an awful decision which simply has to take primary place in any comment on this match.

Bath and Dagenham are both on shocking runs in their respective leagues and Bath were inevitably desperate for the feel good factor of a cup run, as well as the cash it generates. Bath are still part-time in a league where that is increasingly difficult. They are the sort of side that relies on the Supporters Club to pay for away travel for the team …

In that context, the valiant effort that got them a draw away to Dagenham last week was commendable and despite the wretched run of results they went into this game with real belief.  Twerton Park was buzzing in a manner it can’t often have done since the former squatters from Bristol moved out and a grand total of 1704 people turned out amidst the ESPN TV trucks and a full camera crew.  There were actually QUEUES at the turnstiles!

The match got underway at predictably breakneck pace but was remarkably clean for all the sides’ respective bluster.  Barely a couple of free kicks in the first 20 minutes or so by my reckoning.  Things were pretty even, despite the division gap between the sides and chances hard to come by until a cross from the right was met with a towering header by Dagenham’s Bryan Woodall.

My impression at the time was that if the City defender had concentrated on attacking the ball rather trying to lever his opponent away from it, he’d have had more success.  It was the type of goal that Bath have conceded incessantly this season and one might have expected heads to drop as a result.  The opposite was true.  For a team so used to losing, Bath continue to show remarkable resilience and spirit and did so again, getting some real momentum during the second half.

Lewis Hogg’s stinging volley straight at the keeper would have gone in were it a yard either side and a little later, some dogged work saw the ball roll loose in a tight crowd of players.  Alan Connolly stretched to reach it and shoot, slipping on his backside as he did so but somehow got the momentum of his fall through the ball and kept it down at the same time.  Its difficult enough to hit the ball that hard when standing properly, but it whizzed spectacularly the 25 yards it needed to reach the net.  Game on.

I expected the momentum to stay with Bath after that goal, but it wasn’t to be.  The Daggers put a good deal of pressure on, with a succession of corners, though clear chances remained few and, as time went on, things began to even out again.  By the whistle, it was the Daggers who looked pleased to reach extra time.

Now … I appreciate that referees are human, that they do their best and that endlessly whining about them ought to be the preserve of blinkered supporters who phone certain radio stations.  But what came next ruined the night and was inexcusable in my book.  The sense of bemusement in the ground was palpable when Daggers’ striker Nurse made it 2-1 from a position which was not just slightly offside, but a full 15 yards, if not more.

Nurse had been ambling back from an offside position, as strikers often do.  Play had moved on, and reached the other end of the pitch where a punted clearance from the Daggers defence was made.  Bath defender Jim Rollo stuck out a foot to try and block it, maybe mid way inside his own half, he made slight contact but the ball continued on its path through to Nurse who had never gotten closer than about 15 yards back towards the Bath defensive line.  Everyone stopped.  Even Nurse, until he sheepishly gathered the ball and trotted off to round the keeper.

The goal stood, seemingly on the basis that the ball had last come off a Bath player.  The point, of course, is that Nurse was a mile offside when the clearance was made in his direction.  At that point he was offside.  At that point the whistle should have blown.  The fact that a defender’s boots brushed the ball on the way through cannot restrospectively render the offside offence invalid.

In the past ten years or so, the offside rule has been gerrymandered, refined and complicated to the point where even something as absurd as this goal can probably be supported by one interpretation or another.  That mere fact demonstrates that something is wrong.

Football is a simple, yet fluid organic and complex game, and the rules have to be simple and clear to make it work.  If a referee misses something, or doesn’t see the tackle the way we do, its frustrating.  We might even use naughty words about him.  But when the incident is clear for all to see and the interpretation bizarre, everyone goes home feeling a bit sick and wondering why they bother supporting the team, if said team can be shafted not by misfortune but by something that just makes no sense.

If the referee’s approach was correct, then teams ought to start playing goal hangers to wait on the penalty spot for clearances.  Defenders further up the pitch then have the option of competing for the ball, risking getting a touch and playing the goal hanger in, or not competing for it at all and giving the opposition a free header.  Midfielders could develop the art of driving the ball at defenders shins in the hope of getting a deflection to their striker waiting 20 yards ahead, unmarked.  The goal hangers could also come from offside positions and try to nick the ball off defenders from behind, or compete for headers with them having arrived from the “blind side”.

Anyway.  Rant over.

City pressed hard, the introduction of (soon to retire) Scott ‘Solarium’ Murray brought some class to the wing play, and barrel-chested talisman Lee Phillips brought some urgency and aggression to the attack, but all to no avail.  Many might wonder why the pair didn’t start, albeit Murray (who is almost exactly the same age as I am- pushing 38) might struggle to last 120 minutes, and certainly had an impact against tired legs.

Last year, Bath would have won this game despite the crazy refereeing.  I have little doubt that the impact of two departed players (speedy brick-outhouse Kaid Mohammed, and excellent full back Sido Jombati – who has just secured an extended deal at Cheltenham) would have swung it.  Fine margins, and for a struggling part time club, huge rewards now lost.

Back to Bladud the Pig… (the game was largely ended by offside incident, and the third Daggers goal in the second half of extra time was pretty irrelevant).  Bladud is, of course, a bloke in a cheap non-league pig outfit.  However, he’s absolutely top flight in terms of energy and bang for the buck.  Having demanded one of my chips as I entered the ground, he proceeded to entertain us all with his crazy antics.  He never actually stops.  The game goes on, and he continues doing press ups on the touchline, doing high fives with kids and adults alike, and generally being irritating.  On this occasion, we had the pleasure of seeing him deliberately run in front of the TV cameras and force himself upon the Daggers substitutes’ training drill at half time.

If Bath ever found themselves 3 divisions higher, he would doubtless be in trouble and banned from in-game nonsense altogether.  Often he annoys me by getting in the way whilst I’m trying to watch, but isn’t it great to be at a ground where he can do it without sponsors or the premier league dictating protocol?  One day, Man City will find a way of imposing compulsory purchase transfers on players and mascots alike, and the likes of Bladud will get swept up for a pittance before mouldering in the City reserves until all their youthful exuberance drains away.  Until then: Up the pig!

I went home to bed, frustrated and saddened.  And then had to stay up until gone midnight trying to convince my terrified 3 year old that there was not a giant blue hoover (akin to the one in Teletubbies) hiding in his bedroom waiting to suck him up.

Better than watching Chelsea on the telly though.

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