Pesky kids, or children just doing their jobs? Those retrieving the ball sometimes influence the outcome of games, as well as incur the wrath of disgruntled managers like Jose Mourinho.
As Jose Mourinho will testify to, when it comes to actions of ball boys, it’s a whole different game
The 1991 English FA Cup third round was about to witness a major upset. With seconds left at Ewood Park, Blackburn Rovers were leading Liverpool 1-0. That is second division Blackburn, down to 10 men, against reigning English champions Liverpool.
And then ... From a throw in, Liverpool launch one last desperate attack. Ray Houghton crosses into the penalty area, the ball sails over Liverpool’s Gary Gillespie and onto the knee of Blackburn’s Mark Atkins, who, in one of those moments of sporting cruelty, turns the ball past his own goalkeeper.
Liverpool forced a replay at Anfield, which they won 3-0.
The real villain? No, not the blundering Atkins. According to one of the television pundits of the time, the curmudgeonly Jimmy Hill, it was all the fault of 16-year-old Blackburn Rovers ball girl Gillian Maynard. Her crime? Hastily retrieving the ball for Steve Nicol to take that fateful throw-in.
Maynard feared she would be let go, but Blackburn turned out to have far more sense than Hill.
“She was doing her job properly and should be commended,” Blackburn chairman Bill Fox said.
How times have changed. Where honesty – or naivety – was poor Maynard’s only fault, today’s ball children are far less likely to display such Corinthian spirit.
On Saturday, they were back in the news. A ball boy at Crystal Palace unwisely irked Jose Mourinho by stopping Cesar Azpilicueta from taking a quick throw as Chelsea trailed the home team 1-0 late on.
Mourinho ran down the touchline and, after a few choice words and wags of the finger, the Chelsea manager hugged the by now terrified ball boy to diffuse a situation that could have got him in trouble.
“The kids are educated to do this,” Mourinho said of the time-wasting tactics.
“But if a player hits a ball boy, the person who educates them disappears. The player stays in trouble for pushing or punching or kicking the kid.
“I went to stop him and I told him if he does this, one day somebody will punch him. I told him.”
So, to all you ball children, don’t mess with Mourinho.
It is not the first time those pesky kids have got themselves on the wrong side of Chelsea.
Last season Eden Hazard ended up in hot water after he tried to kick the ball from under a Swansea City ball boy, who, like his Crystal Palace counterpart, was reluctant to return the ball to the Chelsea midfielder and had laid on top of it.
The incident came as Chelsea chased two goals 10 minutes from the end of the League Cup semi-final second leg. Hazard was banned for one match, and both ball boy and player were made to apologise to each other.
Touchline chicanery, though, seems to be as much a part of the game as certain other deceptive practices that do no one any favours.
Last May, Mario De Luna of Chivas USA was widely criticised for shoving a ball boy – who again had shown a reluctance to hand over the ball – near the end of a 3-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer (MLS).
It turned out the boy was following official MLS regulations by waiting to give the ball to the appropriate team, in this case Portland. De Luna was booked and missed two matches because of yellow card accumulation.
It is in Brazil, though, where a ball boy made the biggest impact.
In a lower-division match between Guarany and Sergipe in 2012 a mass brawl erupted nsued when, with Guarany’s goalkeeper stranded at the other end, a ball boy denied visiting Sergipe a last-gasp breakaway second goal. At least it made no difference to the result, Sergipe officially winning the match 1-0.
But even that is child’s play compared to an astonishing incident that took place in Sao Paulo six years earlier.
Santacruzense were trailing Atletico Sorocaba at home in the Paulista Football Federation Cup, when a last-minute effort by striker Samuel hit the side netting.
As the players jogged back up the pitch, 10-year-old ball boy Jose Carlos Vieira kicked the ball into the net. Confusion ensued and the referee, Silvia Regina de Oliveira, gave the goal – in a match that ended 1-1.
Incredibly, there is a choice of what was the most farcical aspect of this incident: the commentator’s joyous scream of “gooooooaaaal”; the refereeing commission’s decision to allow the goal, and result, to stand; or the reaction of phantom “goal scorer” Samuel.
“I simply shot the ball,” he said in a display of shamelessness far outstripping Jimmy Hill’s 15 years earlier. “If the referee recognised the goal, then it’s her problem, not ours.”
Heaven knows what Mourinho would make of such an injustice?