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They Was Robbed

New technology has never been the answer to football’s problems, as Olly Wicken reports


Everyone wants football to be officiated fairly. Everyone thinks sport is better without injustices. It’s why new technology has been brought into the game: to avoid disputes.

And yet technology often falls short: think of the shenanigans surrounding Tom Cleverley’s goal at home to Stoke City in November 2020.

This failure is not just a recent phenomenon. Football has been failing for more than a century to provide outcomes that feel fair to both sides. To illustrate, let me take you back to a controversial incident in a match that took place almost 130 years ago. Happily, it went in Watford’s favour. Even more happily, it was against Them From Up The Road.

The new technology at the time was goal nets. In 1891, the Football Association had successfully trialled the concept as a way of avoiding disputes over whether the ball had gone into the goal or not. So in January 1892, Watford Rovers (as we called ourselves at that point) duly installed nets at our home ground at Cassio Road.

Our first home game with goal nets was on 23 January against Millwall, and the nets were deemed ‘a great improvement’. Mind you, Watford fans would have admitted this through gritted teeth because the nets proved that six Millwall shots had definitely gone through our goal while none of our shots had gone through theirs.

(Disappointingly, newspaper reports don’t reveal whether the Victorian-era Watford fans, disgruntled by the new technology, started up a chant of ‘Fuck goal nets!’)

The following Saturday, however, in our second game with nets – a home derby against The Team Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken – it became apparent that technology doesn’t provide the solution to every problem.

You need to know that the local rivalry was already intense in those days. There was bad blood from the most recent encounter (a disputed 4-3 away win for us, in December 1891), and we put out a strong side for the return fixture on 30 January – including our best player of the era, FA Sargent (Freddie), and his brother WA Sargent (Alec).

There was a crowd of 800 at Cassio Road, including 100 fans of the filthy Hatters. Early in the game, one of our forwards, Percy Coles, had a shot from an angle and the net bulged. Watford fans cheered – only to fall silent when it became clear the ball had bulged the outside of the netting beyond the posts. No goal. There was no doubt the new technology was working.

Later in the half, though, Watford’s forward A Butler sent in a hard, high, cross-shot. The Hatters’ goalkeeper stopped the shot on the line and threw the ball back into play. Watford appealed that the goalkeeper had taken the ball over the line when he drew back his arm. The referee agreed. He awarded a goal.

The Hatters were furious. Their players protested vehemently, but the referee insisted the goal stood. Their captain, incensed, led his team off the pitch. There were ungentlemanly scenes. Eventually, the captain was informed that, under FA rules, his team would be liable to suspension if they didn’t play on. With a big cup tie coming up, he reluctantly led his players back onto the pitch, with away fans howling their disapproval.

When we look back on the incident from 2021, it can be seen as an early example (more than a century before goal-line detection systems and VAR) of how technology is never the be-all and end-all in football. But it should also be seen in the context that, in the Victorian era, the game was still developing: it was still finding its way towards the satisfactory resolution of disputes.

So our story ends, back in 1892, as the referee – a Mr EJ Sargent, a former Watford Rovers goalkeeper not unrelated to Freddie and Alec – restarts the game with Watford now 1-0 in the lead. Independently appointed referees were still a thing of the future. The incident smacks of being a delicious outrage.

Does everyone want football to be officiated fairly? Does everyone think sport is better without injustices?

Er, no, actually. Not me.