Alexis James looks back on one of the most obscure moments in Premier League history.
It may be called the Beautiful Game, but every so often football’s beauty is thrust aside by the weird and wonderful. Stranger Things celebrates these stories, beginning with an unlikely inanimate hero at the Stadium of Light…
“I can forgive the referee because if you know that rule, you really are a little bit sad.”
It was no surprise that Steve Bruce was in a forgiving mood on 17th October 2009, for his Sunderland side had risen to seventh in the Premier League following their fifth win of the season. They had leapfrogged Liverpool, their opposition at the Stadium of Light that day, with Rafa Benitez’s side enduring their worst start to a season for 22 years.
With Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in the treatment room, Benitez was beginning to feel the pressure of launching a successive title bid without his two best players. But if the Spaniard was feeling glum that evening, his despair would have paled in comparison to that felt by two of the game’s other participants.
Referee Mike Jones may have received little in the way of criticism from Steve Bruce, or indeed from the ever-gracious Benitez, but his employers clearly felt differently as he found himself officiating at Peterborough’s London Road Stadium the following week.
His punishment came about after Jones and his officials appeared ignorant of the long-standing rule dictating that any outside interference in a game of football should result in the match being stopped and a drop ball being contested.
Apart from the 22 players on the pitch and the referee himself, any other person on the pitch counts as outside interference. As does any other object. Such as, say, a beach ball. A ruddy big red one, in fact.
Despite most of the 47,000 in attendance spotting the inflatable ball drifting mischievously in the Autumn breeze, Sunderland’s early pressure meant that a focused Pepe Reina hadn’t yet had the chance to introduce it to his studs. His delay to do just that meant he’d be picking the match ball out of his net after just five minutes.
After Andy Reid’s low cross was flicked on by Steed Malbranque, the ball came to an in-form Darren Bent, whose well-hit strike was nonetheless heading straight for Reina. Instead, it cannoned off the beach ball to send the football one way, the inflatable the other. Reina’s superb reflexes betrayed him as he moved towards the wrong ball, and one of the most bizarre goals in football history proved to be the winner.
To rub salt in the wounds for Liverpool, the inflatable was emblazoned with the famous Liver bird, and footage released after the game confirmed that it had been punched on to the pitch by a travelling Red. The unfortunate culprit was one Callum Campbell, a 16-year-old Liverpool fan who found himself on the wrong side of fate that day.
“It was me,” he would tell the Daily Mirror later that week. “I’m the one who did it. I’m the one caught on camera. I’m so, so sorry. This is my worst, worst nightmare.
“When I got home I went into the garden and threw up. I was physically sick – and that’s before the death threats started appearing on the Internet the next day.”
Campbell didn’t even own the offending item; he’d simply plucked it from the air as the away contingent threw it amongst one another before the players had even emerged from the tunnel. Despite the excessive reaction from some angry supporters, poor Callum knew at least one fan who didn’t blame him for what happened:
“My mum tells me it wasn’t my fault – and that’s what I have to believe. The referee should never have allowed the goal. I just hope the real fans understand and forgive me.”
By the end of the season, Liverpool fans would be blowing hot air about more than just a beach ball. Not only had their title challenge failed to materialise, but they had also finished well outside the Champions League places in seventh. It would see Benitez’s six-year reign on Merseyside come to an end.
Meanwhile Mike Jones put the farce behind him to return to the top flight, and is now a UEFA-accredited official, presumably up to scratch with the rules on outside interference.
Watch the beachball moment here:
As for the beach ball? Well, Callum, Rafa and Mike may want to avoid Manchester’s National Football Museum, where it takes pride of place alongside some of the game’s most iconic artefacts.