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Back Farce

Nick Catley goes back to August 1992, when a rule change caused chaos, confusion and not a little comedy.


In retrospect, the timing wasn’t great for us. Since I’d started supporting Watford, we’d had a tradition of long-serving, excellent goalkeepers a list taking in Rankin, Sherwood, Coton and James, which later carried on, to a greater or lesser extent and with the odd interruption, to include Miller, Chamberlain, Foster, Lee, Loach, Almunia, Gomes and Bachmann.

You may already have spotted, however, that David James left in 1992, while Kevin Miller joined in 1994. The two-year interregnum was filled by a combination of Perrys Suckling and Digweed and youth product Simon Sheppard. Let’s be generous and say that none of them quite produced performances that demanded they became a regular in the position.

Meanwhile, the biggest change to the laws of the game since World War Two (as opposed to interpretations of them or punishments given for infringements) also took place in 1992 and it affected one position above all others. The new back-pass rule (if you’re too young to remember, goalkeepers used to be able to pick up passes from their own players with impunity) was the bane of keepers everywhere.

Strangely enough, while there had been plenty of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in the usual quarters about the decline of football as a sport in the 1980s, the proposed solutions usually related to preventing the offside trap, which was seen by some as at least as much a part of the nation’s moral decline as the abolition of capital punishment and national service. In contrast, banning back-passes had been mooted relatively rarely. Football wasn’t a 24-hour news story then, however, so the general mood when the new rule was introduced was one of waiting and seeing. Certainly, while Denmark’s underdog triumph at that summer’s European Championships was widely celebrated, their tactics of getting a goal and then passing the ball back to Peter Schmeichel whenever possible weren’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Our first opportunity to see the law in competitive action was the season opener at home to Millwall. Doubtless David James, still only 22 and with much more footballing ability than most keepers of the time, would have taken the change in his stride indeed, although his first months at Liverpool weren’t without incident, the new law wasn’t among the problems. However, although only 26, Suckling was a product of a different era, and much less adaptable.

The moment I can still see in my mind’s eye came midway through the first half. Unable to pick up a back-pass that would have been routine in Watford’s last competitive match three months previously, Suckling attempted to control it instead. However, a heavy, under-rehearsed first touch went straight to Millwall forward John McGinley. If losing the ball on the halfway line is unforgivable, losing it on the penalty spot is far worse, and McGinlay duly slotted home while Suckling, looking down the barrel of a disastrous debut, put his head in his hands and presumably mentally cursed the Lords of FIFA. 

The fun wasn’t over there, however the afternoon became even more farcical, as Millwall clearly had an equally limited ability to cope with the new law. A through ball caused panic because no one could pass it back to went-on-to-better-things keeper Kasey Keller, and the resultant chaos led to a penalty which Jason Drysdale converted. A similar situation in the second half led to even more confusion, with Keller coming out of his area, hopelessly miscontrolling with his chest, then failing to wrestle Darren Bazeley to the ground as he went past him to score, and Suckling was ultimately reprieved. In the meantime, ex-Watford striker Malcolm Allen had been sent off, and Lee Nogan had scored with a powerful header from a Bazeley cross, a goal that seemed certain to inspire the previously misfiring Nogan to greater things. Similarly, the match itself coming on the back of the previous season’s bizarre finale where three Bristol City players were dismissed within a few second-half minutes suggested Vicarage Road would be an exciting place to be that season.

It didn’t. And it wasn’t. Instead, the game turned out to be one of the campaign’s few pleasant memories. Flicking through my own mental record of that year returns that Millwall game, beating Leeds in the League Cup, some impressive goals from Paul Furlong, and an awful lot of dross. Admittedly, that doesn’t mark it out hugely from a lot of the seasons we’ve all seen over the years.

It’s said that the sign of a good law change is one that seems inevitable in retrospect, and it seems fair to say that’s true of the back-pass law. Certainly there have been very few calls for its repeal. Some even credit it as a key part of football’s growth in popularity over the subsequent decades, although that strikes me as going too far. Gradually, keepers have learned to live with it. Indeed, they’ve come to resemble outfield players much more, both physically and in their role within the team. But they certainly weren’t ready for it in August 1992.