Don’t abandon hope

WELL, you learn something new every day. And I learned something new today thanks to Karl Evans, the referee at this afternoon’s Championship match between Barnsley and Plymouth.

Evans, like all the National Group football referees, is profiled on the Professional Game Match Officials website – or, to call it by its snappy title, refworld.com. (I’m picturing a theme park with yellow and red sticks of rock, and with people constantly complaining that the candy floss has no consistency.)

In that profile, he reveals the following piece of information: “The best game that I have officiated in to date is the Johnston’s paints trophy final in 2007. I was appointed as fifth official and the game itself was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It was an amazing experience to be involved in such a high profile game.”

Fifth official? At first, I thought it was a typo. But no. Fifth officials have existed since 2006. Their job is to assist the fourth official. And if the referee gets injured and the fourth official has to take over, then the fifth official takes over the fourth official’s job.

Of course, this begs several questions: Who then takes over the fifth official’s job? Is there a sixth official hidden away deep in the bowels of the stadium, perhaps behind a sheet of glass next to a notice stating “For emergency use only (penalty of improper use)”?

Is it like the line of succession to the throne? Is there a bloke refereeing a parks match in Sutton Coldfield who is 178th in line to take charge of the FA Cup final? (Oh come on, you must have seen King Ralph with that bloke out of Roseanne.)

And is being the fifth official a bit like being the Fifth Beatle? You were there, you had a role to play, but no one really remembers you.

There was no fifth official listed for this afternoon’s game at Oakwell, where Evans took the top job. And the referee is a significant man when Barnsley and Plymouth meet these days. Take Gavin Ward, for instance.

Ward abandoned the match between these two sides at Home Park in November due to torrential rain with half-an-hour to go – when Barnsley were 4-1 up and the game was, to all intents and purposes, over. Barnsley manager Mark Robins, not a man who loses his temper easily, was furious.

I think the anger is still there, although Robins restricted himself to two oblique references to the abandonment in today’s match programme. It was mentioned nowhere within its 68 pages.

Four of those pages were given over to four journalists to deliver their heartfelt tributes to Benny Hill, the former sports editor of the Barnsley Chronicle and the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, who died last month at the age of 82.

Those of you from outside the area may not be aware of just what a journalistic legend Hill is in South Yorkshire. I’m certainly not the person to try to get that across, but it may help you to know that among the reporters he helped on their way into journalism at the Morning Telegraph was a young chap called John Motson. There were many, many others.

Hill edited the Stop Press page in Barnsley’s programme for 36 years up until his death. The column was remarkable for the quality of writers it attracted, particularly given that they weren’t paid for contributing.

It was Janine Self – now of the Sun, once of the Morning Telegraph – who repeated Hill’s favourite joke in one of today’s four Stop Press columns. Hill, she wrote, always insisted that he was funnier than his comedy namesake.

Andrew Lodge of the Barnsley Chronicle wrote: “If it wasn’t for Benny, we wouldn’t have had the ‘improvements’ to the press box in the old West Stand – even if those journalists not accustomed to visiting Oakwell on a regular basis still struggle with the tables that keep tipping over, sending laptops and the like crashing to the floor!”

As I’ve been to Oakwell a few times, I’ve learned to avoid the peril of the flipping tables. And there continue to be improvements to the press box, which now has somewhere to plug in your laptop too.

“It used to drive Benny mad if his beloved profession was not catered for in any way,” Lodge added.

The reporters at Oakwell were well catered for as they settled down to watch a match with implications for the Championship’s play-off race and its relegation battle. Barnsley might yet reach the top six thanks to a remarkable upturn following Robins’ arrival in September. Plymouth will be glad just to reach fourth from bottom.

But the first half was not pretty to watch. There was the odd moment of incident and an awful lot of slog on a boggy pitch which – for reasons best known to the groundsman – had been unnecessarily watered before kick off.

Barnsley’s Icelandic midfielder Emil Hallfredsson fired over an unguarded goal after the busy Jay Rodriguez had dispossessed Plymouth defender Reda Johnson and caught keeper David Stockdale out of position. Rodriguez, on loan from Burnley, had a long-range effort pushed away by Stockdale. At the other end, Jamie Mackie was beating the floor in frustration after Stephen Foster appeared to catch him inside the area. No penalty was given.

And then, 15 seconds before the fourth (not the fifth) official put his board up to signal two minutes of stoppage time, Barnsley scored. Carl Dickinson’s left-wing delivery found its way across the area to Hugo Colace, and he bounced a shot past Stockdale into the far corner.

Against some teams in relegation trouble, that might have been that. But Plymouth head coach Paul Mariner has been remarkably upbeat of late for a man whose side are on the wrong side of a relegation line. And that was reflected in Argyle’s positive second-half performance.

Rory Fallon should have had them level five minutes after the break, but his header was brilliantly kept out by Lee Steele, a great stopper who hasn’t always convinced with his command of his area.

Barnsley went close with a couple of long-range efforts after that, but Plymouth were slowly edging their way back into the game. When Carl Fletcher drove in a classy equaliser in the 64th minute, it was no surprise.

The rain started teeming down, but there was no prospect of an abandonment this time. The prospect of a Barnsley win was receding too. Damien Johnson, signed from Birmingham during the transfer window, hit the bar for Plymouth. And with 16 minutes left, they went in front, as Mackie touched in Fallon’s header from a Yannick Bolasie corner.

There was still time for Fallon to score an extraordinary goal from 35 yards – a shot which whizzed over Steele and dropped into the net. Fallon, a born-again Christian, seemed to be offering thanks to a higher being as he celebrated.

It was, a local journalist pointed out, the first time that Plymouth had come from behind to win a game for more than two years. The 3-1 win did not take them out of the bottom three – they are still six points adrift of safety. But maybe it gives them a sliver of a chance.

“If you’ve got a tremendous team spirit, then you’ve always got a chance,” Mariner said afterwards. “So we’ve got a chance.”

Robins was every bit as angry as he had been at Home Park three months ago – albeit for different reasons.

“I can sum that up in one word: Embarrassing,” Robins said. “Maybe we think that we’ll get our noses in front against Plymouth and then things will come easy. And then when it doesn’t come easily and they equalise, we don’t know how to respond.

“In the first half, we were full of running, full of energy, we passed the ball OK, we got some decent chances, didn’t take them, and then we got our noses in front. Second half – capitulation.”

Barnsley still have to play Plymouth again. November’s abandoned game was postponed in January, and will take place on March 30. By then, we should have a clearer idea as to whether Barnsley’s play-off ambitions and Plymouth’s survival hopes are grounded in reality. Both look a long shot, but it’s far too early to abandon hope yet.

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