I often write about rule changes I’d like to see in football, as many of them seem nonsensical. However, a lot of them are trivial and do not have any great bearing on a game, but sometimes the littlest things puzzle us the most.
One rule change I would like to see is the one where you are cautioned for removing your shirt after celebrating a goal.
Last week we had another example of this. Sunderland, yes that Sunderland who were so far adrift at the foot of the Premier League their owners decided they had to change the manager after just 5 matches, were up against the might of Chelsea, League and European Champions in the past few years. This was a League Cup tie, a competition in which the likes of Arsene Wenger has convinced the FA of its importance so much so that it must be settled in one attempt. No replays, just extra time and penalties. The game is 1-0 to Chelsea with barely two minutes remaining and Sunderland grab an equaliser to force extra time. In front of their own fans, who’ve endured a miserable time of it lately, save the ‘massive’ derby day win over Newcastle, the place is buzzing for the effort their boys have put in. Deep into extra time and there’s still nothing to separate the two sides. The fans are shifting in their seats about penalties, many of the players will also be anxious as they will their teammates to end things to put them out of their impending misery. With seconds left on the clock, Sunderland attack and the ball is in the Chelsea area at the feet of one Ki Sung-Yueng. He beats one defender as he switches the ball onto his right foot and fires a shot low into the corner of the net and the whole place erupts. This Sunderland side has endured a lot this season, they are still 4pts away from any company at the foot of the table, they are up against a Chelsea side managed by an enigmatic Portuguese who has never experienced defeat in a League Cup tie at Chelsea, yet little old Ki has won it for them. He goes off on a victory celebration.
Now let’s consider this for a moment. When we were kids, whatever sport you fancied, we’ve all dreamed of hitting the winning runs, taking the last wicket, kicking the drop-goal in added time, serving the final ace, potting the black, hitting the double 16 to win a game. We’ve all dreamed of that, and we’ve all seen ourselves celebrate. None of us really know how we’d react but we’ve all played it through in our own minds. These are the moments of no return in sport which in team sport happen so rarely. The point when no one else can trump you. You can score a goal at any time in a game, but when it comes so late the other team has no chance to come back then you are remembered as a hero for eternity.
If you score a goal in the first half of a cup Final and that is the only goal of the game, then you are known as the man whose ‘only goal of the game won the cup for his club’. But if your goal is virtually the last kick of the game then you are known as the man who ‘won the cup for his club’. Ki won the game for Sunderland.
For South Korean, Ki, this was his first goal in English football having been signed by Swansea in August 2012. At the time he was the club’s most expensive player, but he struggled to live up to his price tag and a year later joined Sunderland on a season-long loan. This would’ve been his finest moment in football so far, in fact he has admitted so, calling it a “once in a lifetime” goal. Given all that, you can hardly forgive him from losing control over his celebration and taking his shirt off.
This disrobing has a habit of breaking through the most reserved player’s defences at times when the goal and/or the occasion is beyond comprehension. I’m willing to bet that when Ki was flying over to England (ok, Wales), he dreamed of such a moment. He dreamed of the headlines, of the crowd singing and he must’ve dreamed of how he imagined he would celebrate. But that was all done with a clear head and under no pressure whatsoever.
Rewind to another goal involving a Swansea player. It is May 2011 and Swansea are in the Championship play-offs at the Semi-Final stage where they’re playing Nottingham Forest. The 1st leg ended goalless and Swansea were 2 goals up in the first half of the 2nd leg. Rob Earnshaw came on to score a late goal for Forest, who were then in the position of knowing another goal would send them through on goal difference. It had been 28 years since Swansea had been in the top flight and in that time had virtually gone bust. They had clawed their way back from the dead and were on the verge of the big time. Three minutes into injury time and with Earnshaw having already hit the bar, Forest had a corner for which their keeper went up for. Swansea defended it and Pratley broke clear picking the ball up just outside his own area, and as he reached the halfway line he launched the ball into the net. Cue amazing scenes of celebration. The Championship Play-off Final is reputed to be worth around £90m for the winner in tv revenue and Premier League prize money, and Pratley has just ensured his side has made it. He then goes on a run back down the touchline, ripping his shirt off as he goes. It is quite clearly his greatest moment on a football field and he is ecstatic. He may never get another chance to be the man to score that goal at that stage of as important a match as that.
Both Ki and Pratley were booked for their celebration. They could’ve done almost anything and not been cautioned but because they removed their shirts, they were booked. The authorities claim this action could incite opposition fans to riot and they have been very clear in the punishment for this offence. Referees will tell you that all the League clubs have posters on the walls warning players they will be punished for this misdemeanour, and they will argue the players only have themselves to blame.
My point is that there should be some leeway for this rule, in fact I’d go further and say we should get rid of this ridiculous rule altogether.
Before I go onto explain why, let us just consider another incident from this season. The Merseyside derby and Liverpool are 2-1 up at Everton, who have lost just once at home in the league all season. Daniel Sturridge, who has not made the starting line-up, is warming up on the touchline. He is having to do this in front of the home fans who are giving him fearful stick. Sturridge takes it all in good faith, smiling as he continues his routines. Sturridge is sent on just after Everton has equalised and then soon after his introduction, Everton take the lead for the first time. It is not certain whether the Everton players knew this, but since the War Everton has only once come from behind to win a Merseyside derby, and they are on the threshold of achieving the ‘impossible’. Then Liverpool has a free-kick with a minute to go. Gerrard fires the ball in and Sturridge gets up to head it past Tim Howard for a dramatic equaliser. Sturridge then goes to the Everton fans who had so politely welcomed him to the ground earlier and proceeds to show off his dance moves which are synonymous with his goal celebrations. He was already on that side of the pitch so it seems natural to move to the side of the pitch to celebrate the goal. But some of the home fans are incensed by his behaviour resulting in Sturridge having to justify his actions, for which he claimed he was simply ‘cocking a snook’ at them (my words, not his) for their greeting earlier.
Sturridge wasn’t booked for his celebration, despite some of the home fans anger. Nobody likes having their noses rubbed into things and taunted, especially football fans or people in a crowd. Had Sturridge taken his shirt off he would’ve been booked, but would the Everton fans have become violent as a result? Would they have considered in that moment that Sturridge had committed the ultimate sin of standing in front of them showing off his fine torso, resulting in them scaling the fences to administer a suitable punishment themselves? I think not. I wouldn’t imagine they would’ve been any more, or less incensed whether his shirt was on his back or not.
Therefore, why is it considered the height of yobbery or the most unpleasant of taunts for a player to remove his shirt whilst celebrating, yet he can perform any other sort of insult (not one fingered, obviously) and mockery and escape punishment.
I can understand if officials wish to deter an epidemic of scantily-cladishness but in certain circumstances surely they can exercise some discretion?
Neither Pratley or Ki ran towards the opposition fans to try and goad them. Sturridge, it could be argued, did.
Getting back to Ki. Ki has now received 4 yellow cards, leaving him one short of a ban. What if Sunderland are about to reach the Final and he is slightly late on a challenge, which is neither malicious or dangerous but warrants another caution? He would then receive his last one resulting in a ban denying him a contribution to what could be Sunderland’s only high point of the season. Now I realise referees cannot suddenly decide not to punish a player in case he misses out on one of his finest moments of a brief career, but it is now the case that he has picked up a card for demonstrating he is human and had celebrated in front of his own fans in what was a wonderful moment. Something many players can go through a whole career never experiencing. Of course he wouldn’t be the first to miss a Final following a suspension but often they have deserved it. Dennis Irwin, for contrast, was particularly unlucky. In 1999 as Manchester United closed in on a treble they were leading at Anfield when the ball was going out for a throw and Irwin attempted to keep it in. By the time Irwin connected with the ball, the linesman (out of sight behind him) had flagged and so referee David Elleray deemed Irwin had deliberately kicked the ball away at which point he showed Irwin, already on a yellow card, a second yellow resulting in a sending off and an automatic ban meaning he would miss the FA Cup Final. For the 33 year old Irwin, this was likely to be his last chance of another Wembley final and so it proved.
Referees should understand the circumstances of the game and should officiate the game accordingly. Running the whole length of the pitch to celebrate in front of your old club’s fans as Adebayor did when he scored against Arsenal, warrants a punishment as it was crass, stupid and only going to inflame already irritated, and frustrated supporters. But taking your shirt off to celebrate in front of your own fans with almost the last kick of the game would seem to be poor reasoning for admonishment.
The most famous shirt-removal behaviour was when Ryan Giggs scored one of the best FA Cup goals in extra time of the Semi-Final Replay against Arsenal in 1999. He had scored a goal many of us have dreamed about, and for a midfield player who picks up the ball just inside his own half, it was the best goal they could’ve scored. No wonder Giggs ‘lost it’ with his celebration. It was a heavyweight clash which was nearing a penalty shootout and Giggs had not only scored, but the nature and timing of the goal proceeded to finally burst Arsenal’s competitive balloon. He removed his shirt as he went on a run back down the pitch, revealing the sort of chest thatch that presumably he would rather only his wife or her sister would ever have seen.
He’s never done it since, but then he’s never scored a goal like it since. These things can often happen just once in a player’s career and for an official to determine how it should be celebrated is simply pouring unnecessary fuel on a perfectly well-lit firework. We are often reminded how short a footballer’s career is, so let’s fast forward 30 years and there is young Ki sitting in his rocking chair reflecting on his life. Do you really think he’s going to regret taking his shirt off during a celebration bringing himself a booking? Well, he will do if it contributes to him missing an important match, but for a ‘once in a lifetime’ goal surely he love to be able to think back and reminisce that he couldn’t possibly have celebrated that goal any better.
This further illustrates the futility of the law as it doesn’t deter every player and there are certain circumstances when a player is going to break this law no matter the consequences, as the positive reaction from his teammates and supporters is more than enough to keep him going during any suspension he may incur. Another example of crassness of the rule is that Ki had a top underneath his shirt so he wasn’t even bare-chested, so it is hardly likely to incite a crowd any more than a player celebrating in front of them keeping his shirt on.
I would suggest we need to give referees the power of discretion. They can then determine whether a celebration is likely to cause a reaction in the crowd, or better still we could just leave it all to the fabulous ‘wise-after-the-event’ panel which can only bring retrospective action on a player if the referee hasn’t seen him commit an inappropriate challenge.