x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Once upon a time in the League Cup

Yeovil Town manager Gary Johnson's actions on Tuesday really were the stuff of fairy tales, writes Will Batchelor.

Gary Johnson, the Yeovil coach, is popular among fans, despite angering Birmingham City coach Lee Clarke.
Gary Johnson, the Yeovil coach, is popular among fans, despite angering Birmingham City coach Lee Clarke.

Fairy tales and football cups go hand in hand.

Under normal circumstances, the comforting parables focus on two main themes: giant-slaying (see Hereford United v Newcastle United in the 1972 English FA Cup for details) and the realisation of boyhood dreams.

Few people, therefore, would be tempted to file Tuesday night's ugly scenes between Yeovil Town and Birmingham City players under the "fairy tale" category.

But they would be right to do so.

To recap the details: in a second round League Cup game, with Birmingham leading 2-1 in injury time, their goalkeeper, Colin Doyle, deliberately kicked the ball out of play to allow treatment to injured teammate Dan Burn.

Instead of waiting for Burn to receive treatment, then passing the ball back to Birmingham at the throw-in, as is customary, Yeovil manager Gary Johnson ordered his team to play on.

They did so, and Byron Hudson fired into the empty goal to level the score 2-2.

Johnson stood by his decision for the next 20 minutes or so but, by the midway point of extra-time, had begun to cool his jets.

When Yeovil scored to make it 3-2, he ordered his players to stand still at the re-start, allowing the Birmingham players to score an easy equaliser.

Birmingham then held their nerve to win the penalty shoot-out.

Despite the victory, Birmingham manager Lee Clarke remained furious at Johnson's initial lack of sportsmanship, and vowed to make an official complaint to the English Football Association.

Poor sportsmanship, incandescent managers, scrapping players and a sour atmosphere may not sound like the stuff of fairy tales, but Johnson is arguably one of sport's greatest heroes.

To be heroic by instinct is laudable but, by definition, it occurs without thought.

I witnessed Paolo Di Canio's famous act of sportsmanship at Goodison Park in 2000, when the Italian chose to catch a crossed ball instead of heading into the empty net, having spotted the Everton goalkeeper lying injured.

He did not have a moment to consider the situation. If he had, who knows what decision he would have made?

The belated nature of Johnson's act does not diminish it, but actually gives it strength, because he had time to consider the full ramifications.

When most managers make a bad decision, they will defend it at all costs, for fear that admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness. Johnson was braver than that.

Likewise, heroism is easier when there is a small price to pay.

England cricketer Andrew Flintoff and German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn are often cited for choosing to comfort vanquished opponents, rather than celebrating wildly, at the moment of victory - Flintoff in the 2005 Ashes and Kahn at the 2001 Uefa Champions League final.

Both acts of kindness were undeniably heartwarming, but ultimately cost our noble heroes nothing. They still got their winners medal. They still celebrated, eventually.

Granted, a victory for Yeovil over Birmingham would hardly be giant-slaying on the Hereford-Newcastle scale - the two teams are on equal points in the same league - but it would have been a memorable night for the smaller club.

A minor fairy tale, in the traditional football sense.

Instead, Johnson chose a different fairy tale, one far closer to the folk stories of old.

It was the tale of a flawed man with the wisdom to admit his mistake and pay the price.

I know which story I would rather tell my kids tonight.

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Speaking of fairy tales, Gareth Bale is reportedly upset that his dream move to Real Madrid has been soured by his current club, Tottenham Hotspur.

With the deal all but done, Madrid wanted to get on with showing off their new toy.

A special stage had been erected at the Bernabeu to unveil Bale to the fans on Tuesday, but the event was cancelled as Spurs ordered their player to report to training in London.

The Spanish club was also forced to shelve plans to play Bale in a friendly against Deportivo La Coruna yesterday, to which they could then sell broadcasting rights and exclusive images.

While Bale was reportedly “furious and frustrated” by Tottenham’s nitpicking and determination to take the deal to its 11th hour, most neutral fans will surely find a different F-word to describe the situation: funny.

We all know that a club of Madrid’s size will always get their man.

We all know that Bale seems like a decent guy, and wish him every success.

There is, however, something rather grating about the expectation that the inevitable transfer must take place according to Madrid’s strict timetable of profit-making and preening.

Why should Tottenham make it easy for Madrid? Why should the Spanish giants get the player and the party? Why shouldn’t they have to sweat a little?

So while I wish Bale well at Madrid, I do not begrudge Spurs having their fun as he goes.

sports@thenational.ae

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