Neil Nixon returns - with a nostalgia trip to the Watney Cup era, a dissection of the new offside laws and a look ahead to his new book and the new season.

Neil Nixon and Son
Neil and Thom at the Valley
WATNEY CUP ANYONE?

Anyone remember the Watney Cup? For you sub-fortysomething youngsters out there the Watney Cup may take some explanation. Sponsored by the same brewery that sent millions of gallons of cheap beer to Spain for Brits who’d burn themselves red and spend the evening throwing up, the Watney Cup made sense in the days when some clubs were complaining there was too little football. Basically the two highest finishing clubs in each division who’d won nothing would be placed in an eight team tournament in the pre-season period. Carlisle were there once – in 1971 – and Chris Balderstone confidently predicted in the local press that Carlisle would win it, beating Manchester United in the final We had a masterplan to deal with the rampant George Best, Balderstone told the world via the Gazette. We were going to put Frank Barton on Best with orders not to let up on him over ninety minutes.

In the end it came to nothing. In a result forgotten by everyone except the supporters of Colchester United the Essex team dumped Manchester United out of the competition in the first round. We didn’t fare too much better, crashing out to West Brom in the semi-final. The final, at the Hawthorns, saw Colchester beat West Brom on penalties.

So why does it matter now? Well, it matters because the Watney Cup was one of those competitions used as a proving ground for new laws. One worked, one didn’t but both came with glowing descriptions of why they were good ideas at the start of the competition. The one that worked was the shootouts. I’m not saying penalty shootouts are perfect but it sure as hell felt that way in our final home game last season! Realistically, penalty shootouts are the best option in an impossible situation. The UK’s first shootout came in the Watney Cup in 1970 the first final decided this way was Colchester’s victory over West Brom the following season.

When it came to offsides the Watney Cup had an inventive take on the whole thing. The normal offside rule applied with one twist. It only applied in the opposing penalty area. In other words a team could leave strikers jogging around eighteen yards from the opposing goalie ready to pounce on any chance.

Before the competition started the organisers confidently predicted flashing skills and wonder goals, high scoring games of high drama. Round one Colchester United 2 Manchester United 1 told its own story. This was no United second string. Stepney, Charlton and Best were on the team sheet and the same Manchester United team would open the new season with a lengthy spell in the top two, replacing the early pace setters Sheffield United at the top in the autumn. They lost to Colchester largely because the ‘thinking’ behind the Watney Cup’s revision of the offside rule was – well – crap, basically.

It only made sense if you assumed that teams would adopt their usual tactics and the one change with the new law would be the position of the furthest forward players. In fact, it favoured dour lower division plodders with less skill. Colchester – who’d grafted their way not long before the Watney Cup to a famous FA demolition of Leeds United – were one such team. A team not unlike Clive Middlemas’ Carlisle outfit in 1990. Any football fan with half a brain could see the problem with the new law right away. With strikers hanging forward defenders were obliged to hang back. Teams were spread over a longer area of the pitch the whole time and the real winners were tough tackling long-ball specialists – like Colchester – who knew from the start they were challenged for ball skills. No ‘footballing’ side was likely to win the Watney Cup under those conditions.

This ancient history lesson matters now because we’re facing another change in the offside law. Given the problems last year when a player could remain in an offside position providing he or she wasn’t ‘Actively involved in play’ Fifa have defined ‘active play.’ Active play is: ‘Touching the ball after it is passed by a team-mate or rebounds off post, crossbar or opponent.’

Or

‘Preventing an opponent from being able to play the ball by obstructing the opponents line of vision or distracting him/her.’

I’ll confess at this stage my experience as an official is limited to running lines whilst my son – Thom – and his Bearsted team take on the best the Express Cabs U12 Premier Division can throw at them. So my authority in these matters amounts to nothing more than common sense and years of paying to watch football. Fifa have – in any case – argued this is not a new rule, it’s a clarification of the earlier change.

Really? Well last year I saw Arsenal play up close, as in about one row back from the pitch. The pace of Henry and Pires in particular is stunning at that distance and Henry was clearly under instructions to run offside, turn and run back and then turn again and head for goal as the ball came forward. He regularly outpaced the Charlton defence when he did this and – of course – he was onside because he was heading back and therefore not interfering with play as the ball was kicked forward. Never mind that Arsenal had obviously run this drill through time and time again on the training pitch.

Under the new law it’ll probably be worse. It seems to me there’ll be two problems.

Firstly, so many things are harder to judge. The interfering with opponents views of action for starters. This will lead to late disallowed goals, furious discussions between refs and assisstant refs in front of seething mobs of supporters and probably more goal-mouth punch ups at the same time. Not what Fifa intended.

Secondly, since a lot of these judgements will be hard to predict there is an obvious advantage to be gained by leaving players in an offside position a lot of the time. So long as they run back onside before touching the ball they should have no problem and in a goalmouth scramble that might mean stepping back a yard or two at most. We could be back to the situation of the Watney Cup with teams spread over a whole pitch, long ball tactics being the most effective, midfield skill at a premium and a lot of frustrating goalmouth action as crowded defences smother skill.

The argument for the ‘clarification’ makes logical sense on paper but – it seems to me – takes little account of the way footballers behave on the pitch. I doubt it’ll have much impact on Carlisle’s new campaign since the description above fits the level we’re at. But in the Premiership the number of low scoring and inconclusive games might start to worry the authorities well before the end of the season.

Finally – I don’t know about you but I hate it when people try and sell me stuff I never wanted in the first place. So, if you didn’t care about my book last time stop reading at this point. If – however – you’re one of those e-mailing the web site asking when the new one is coming the situation is:

Probably in the shops on or around October 27th with – hopefully – some event in Carlisle on the morning of October 29th ahead of the home game against Stockport. I won’t bore you with the reasons for it going back from October, largely down to printing costs and the usual guff that frustrates authors. But it’s coming, again, and those of you who keep asking only have a few more weeks to wait. By that point – of course – we’ll be comfortably in a play off place, with average crowds around eight and a half thousand and……no I don’t think so either. I reckon we’re in for a season of consolidation. Can’t see us dropping back but I think our promotion chances will depend as much on other well supported teams misfiring as they will on the skills we can field. Either way, bring it on.

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Neil Nixon