“Justice done at Celtic... Very poor sportsmanship from Motherwell for their goal... Motherwell got what they deserved...”
That was the Twitter verdict of Chris Sutton after Motherwell went against football’s most ubiquitous unwritten rule by deciding against giving the ball back to Celtic on Sunday after the ball was put out of play for an injured player. The visitors used this advantage to score from the situation as Gboly Ariyibi finished off a rebound after James Scott, the criminal mastermind behind all of this, saw his shot saved by Scott Bain as boos rained down from the Celtic Park stands.
Of course, seeing as this is 2019, a video soon emerged online showing that Sutton didn’t have too much of a problem with such actions during his playing days. In a clip from a match between Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers in what appears to be the late 90s, Sutton can be seen putting an Arsenal defender under pressure as soon as the ball was returned following an injury. Instead of allowing the opposition time to regroup, as is customary, he hounds the player into conceding a corner. It’s maybe not as egregious an example as Motherwell’s, but he’s hardly due a shining gold star for “sportsmanship” either.
Sutton is far from the only person guilty of being a tad hypocritical over the subject. In fact, he’s in the overwhelming majority. A few hours after the incident, A View From The Terrace colleague Shaughan McGuigan (shameless plug alert) complained of a League Cup match in 1995 where his beloved Raith Rovers lost to Celtic after the Hoops indulged in some “unsporting” conduct. After Raith had kicked the ball out for a Celtic injury, Pierre van Hooijdonk intercepted the attempt to throw the ball back to the away side, choosing instead to head it out of play. They still had the ball, but Raith were pinned deep in the own half and quickly lost possession when Celtic pressed the throw, which led to the winning goal.
Now, the reason I bring this up is because I know Shaughan would still have been chuckling about it 24 years later had the roles been reversed. He certainly wouldn’t have been as outraged if it were Raith profiting from it.
Even I still harbour a little resentment at Rangers for refusing to give the ball back to Hearts in the 1998 Scottish Cup final after it was played out for an injury. It was over 20 years ago and my team still won the game, yet if I ever watch it back (it’s only been about 50 times) I always find myself shaking my head and muttering some variation of “that’s shocking” at the antics of Walter Smith’s side.
What annoyed me most was that nothing was made of it: no outrage to match my own. That’s mainly because Rangers didn’t score — and Twitter hadn’t been invented.
In the end, that was Motherwell’s biggest crime. It wasn’t the fact that they played on when they “should” have given it back to Celtic, it was that they did so and then scored. That shouldn’t matter. The “unsporting” act is the attempt to gain advantage, not the succeeding. Had they failed to create a chance then it would have been mentioned on Sportscene, and fans would have grumbled, but it wouldn’t have been the No.1 topic of discussion for every Scottish football fan this morning.
There was a wild array of opinions on Twitter, as shocking as that sounds. They ranged from ‘this was a despicable outrage and part of the wider conspiracy to stop Celtic from winning ten-in-a-row’ (a personal favourite) to ‘this was perfectly acceptable because it was a Celtic player injured and they kicked the ball out’. Regardless of where on the spectrum you found yourself, it should be stated with certainty that your view of the incident would have been different if your team were the victims. The same goes for Celtic fans if it were the men in hooped shirts securing the “unfair” advantage. Even if you would be willing to admit that it’s wrong to indulge in such “unsporting” conduct, there are hundreds of examples, like the ones mentioned above, to fuel the whataboutery that will soon come flying from your mouth in an attempt to justify it.
So what’s the solution? There’s not a whole lot that can be done. There have been calls to outlaw the act of kicking the ball out for an injured team-mate/opponent, or giving the ball back to the opposition after treatment has been made. This would be almost impossible for a referee to police. Christophe Berra makes a habit of kicking the ball directly to the opposition several times a game. How could an official tell the difference? All the authorities can do is recommend that the game keeps going until the referee decides whether play should be stopped, which they’ve already done.
No, nothing will change. It will happen again in the future. Maybe next season, maybe further down the line, but it will happen. And when it does, everyone will lose their minds once more. Perhaps that’s the only fitting punishment we have.