I RECENTLY celebrated 10 years in sports journalism. (Disappointingly, there was no gala dinner organised in my honour. Instead, I ordered a takeaway pizza.)
In that time, I have cocked up in all manner of ways – I’ve failed to arrive for a match I was supposed to be covering for local radio, I’ve missed a major managerial resignation because I went home early from my shift on a large provincial newspaper, and I even once managed to be sick in the middle of a press conference. (It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I did at least leave the room.)
However, I have never filed a match report with the wrong result, falsely crediting a player with a hat-trick he didn’t score. Mind you, it was a close-run thing today.
If you’ve read the blog entry underneath this one, you’ll know that I was at the Championship match between West Brom and Plymouth this afternoon. Two minutes into the second half, with West Brom leading 2-1, midfielder Marek Cech latched on to a 50-yard pass and produced a cool finish to beat Argyle keeper Romain Larrieu.
As Cech celebrated, a few of us in the press box were trying to figure out who had played the 50-yard pass, and settled on Shelton Martis after consulting with a couple of colleagues who had seen it.
I noted Martis’ name down as the creator of the goal, and then set about writing a match report that led on Cech scoring twice for West Brom. There was only one problem. The goal had been disallowed, and I hadn’t realised.
In the meantime, Karl Duguid hit the bar for Plymouth, and sub Cillian Sheridan had a header saved. Almost 3-2, I thought to myself on both occasions. Perhaps if Plymouth get a goal, they might make a fight of it.
With four minutes left, Cech scored again, and I adjusted my match report so that it now referred to a brilliant hat-trick in a 4-1 win. It was more or less finished, ready to e-mail to the office of the Sunday paper I was working for, when this happened:
Public address announcer: Today’s man of the match for West Bromwich Albion – number 17, Graham Dorrans!
Me: That’s a bit odd! How come Cech didn’t get it?
Fellow journalist: It is a strange one, isn’t it?
Nearby press box steward: What’s that?
Fellow journalist: We were just saying, Cech should have the man of the match award – he scored a hat-trick.
Nearby press box steward: No he hasn’t – he’s scored two.
Fellow journalist: Sorry?
Nearby press box steward: He’s scored two, and had one disallowed for offside in between.
A quick check on the internet confirmed this. It was 3-1, not 4-1. Cech had scored two, not three. Cue a hasty re-write.
As it turned out, I had a very lucky escape. Last November, BBC reporter Carrie Davis went through the final 25 minutes of a match at Rotherham not realising that a goal by Wycombe striker Simon Church had actually been ruled out. At full time, she told Final Score viewers that Wycombe had won 1-0, when they hadn’t.
What was really unnerving about my experience today was that I viewed the second half as if the Cech goal had been allowed to stand. So I saw every Plymouth attack after that as a bid to reduce the deficit, rather than find an equaliser. My view of the game fitted my perception, rather than the facts. Derren Brown would have a field day with this kind of stuff.
As he would have done with a curious exchange involving some of the photographers in the press room afterwards, when one eagle-eyed newspaper reporter bounded up to the snappers after the game.
“Did you notice anything different about Plymouth in the second half?” asked the reporter.
“No,” one of the photographers responded.
“Plymouth changed to a different strip at half-time,” smiled the reporter.
The photographer looked puzzled, then looked through his pictures again, then laughed as realisation dawned.
Plymouth had played the first half in white (their away kit) and the second half in green (their home kit). And yes, I had spotted that one.
Manager Paul Sturrock revealed afterwards that his players had asked to change because they couldn’t make each other out. Those of you with long-ish memories will remember Sir Alex Ferguson ordering a similar kit change when Manchester United were losing a Premier League game at Southampton in 1996.
Perhaps it was because a few of the journalists present at The Hawthorns today have long-ish memories that the discussion of Plymouth’s kit took up a sizeable chunk of Sturrock’s post-match press conference. It was a weird end to a weird day. But at least none of us had to ask him for confirmation of the score.