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Ghost of a Chance

Nick Catley on the goal Adrian Boothroyd described as ‘like a UFO landing’


It isn’t news that debate over refereeing decisions can run and run. Probably the most famous example ever relates to whether the ball crossed the line for England’s third goal in the 1966 World Cup Final (fun fact ‘Russian’ linesman Tofiq Bahramov was actually Azerbaijani, and so revered in his home country that the national stadium in Baku is named after him). The key Watford examples that spring to mind are the sending-off that led to Wilf Rostron missing the Cup Final at Luton in 1984 (thanks, Roger Milford), the non-award of a foul on Steve Sherwood by Andy Gray for Everton’s second in that Cup Final (thanks, John Hunting), and the penalty awarded when Tony Coton and Ian Rush came together with a few minutes to go in the sixth-round FA Cup replay against Liverpool in 1986 with Watford 1-0 up (thanks, Roger Milford. Again.) All are still keenly debated to this day.

However, these are all controversies. There’s room for discussion. Fans will argue about whether the right decision was made, usually depending on the team they support. But the most egregious refereeing error made at Watford in living memory isn’t a controversy at all. The facts are absolutely cut and dried. The ball didn’t come close to going over the line (between the posts, at least) when Reading were awarded their first goal in the game at Vicarage Road on 20 September 2008.

This moves the debate on a little. There’s no discussion as to whether the right decision was made instead, 13 years on, the issue which remains mystifying is how the officials could possibly have come to that decision.

I have one theory. It’s not especially likely, but as Sherlock Holmes said, ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth’ and there had to be and awful lot of improbability going on for a goal to be given. I can just about see, I suppose, if I really screw my eyes up, how linesman Nigel Bannister thought that the ball crossed the line between the posts, but have always remained stumped as to why referee Stuart Attwell didn’t just tell him that it didn’t go anywhere near the goal.

So here’s my theory. We know a Reading corner came off John Eustace and was heading for another corner. Noel Hunt attempted to hook the ball back before it reached the goal line, but failed (we’ll assume Bannister got that part of the decision right, at least). However, a part of the narrative that sometimes gets forgotten is that Long’s cut back actually led to a pretty decent chance, a header which André Bikey crashed against the bar. Is it just possible that the referee thought Scott Loach had saved it, and that when Bannister said the ball had crossed the line, Attwell thought he meant before Loach got his hand to it, rather than when it came off Eustace?

It’s an utterly ridiculous theory, of course. A brief run-through of events between Bannister and Attwell would have established just how ridiculous, and a corner would have been awarded. But I can’t see how else the two of them decided a goal had been scored I really don’t have anything better. Anyone?

Watford actually played pretty well for the rest of the game after a poor start, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the ghost goal helped us more than Reading. Indeed, we almost won it, with second-half goals from Tommy Smith and John-Joe O’Toole (fun fact he was so popular at Northampton that fans had a JJOT day, dressing up as the midfielder for a trip to Mansfield in February 2015. O’Toole made the day particularly memorable for all concerned by getting sent off before half-time). However, Reading salvaged a draw with a late penalty.

It’s sad to think that, with modern technology, we might have been denied this piece of pure farce one of Vicarage Road’s most memorable moments of the 2000s. It still feels slightly odd to see Stuart Attwell in the Premier League, though…