Sunday, July 22, 2007

Posts & Nets: My Magnum Opus

Of all the paraphernalia in and around a football pitch, nothing grabs my attention quite like the goals themselves. There. I said it. There is something indescribably aesthetically pleasing about goal posts and goal nets. They add completeness to a football pitch. A football stadium during the summer, when the posts have been taken down so that the pitch can be re-seeded, is a peculiarly empty place, less so even than during the winter, when you that the entire place will be transformed in a few hours or days time. If I go past a field of park pitches on a train, they only look right if the goals have nets on them (which they very seldom do).

First of all, though, a bit of history. As familiar and reassuring as the shape of a goal post looks today, it took nearly two decades for the FA to bring about any uniformity amongst its members. Prior to 1863, different local associations and clubs played by different rules and the width of the goals was down to the clubs themselves. The FA was formed and immediately unified the laws of the game, setting the width of the goals at eight yards (for, so far as the records indicate, arbitrary reasons). Rather than a crossbar, a tape was put across the tops of the goals. The FA's own rulebook, though, couldn't really be enforced and some local associations continued to tinker. One of the more influential local associations used a goal that was nine feet high and four feet wide with a crossbar, but the FA didn't permit the use of a crossbar officially until 1875, and finally made them compulsory in 1882. It was dissatisfaction with the new laws, by the way that led to the formation of the Rugby Football Union - Richmond, still a top class rugby team today, played in one of the first demonstration matches for the new Laws, but switched codes with the formation of the RFU.

The story of how nets came to be attached to these posts can be more specifically attributed. In the early days of the game, it was exceptionally difficult to gauge whether the ball had even gone into the goal or not. As crowds grew, spectators started to stand behind the goals, and it even became commonplace for shots into the goal to bounce back into play off those standing behind it. It was an engineer and referee from Liverpool by the name of J.A. Brodie that first came up with the idea. After a couple of trial matches (during one of which nets were used on one goal, presumably so as to offer up some sort of direct comparison) the FA gave their approval, but to this day the use of nets is, strictly speaking, optional (even the current edition of The Laws states that "nets may be attached" - my italics), though more all less all leagues, right down to the very bottom of the amateur game, make their use compulsory. The use of stanchions on goals came about for two primary reasons. Firstly, the kept the nets out of the way of the goalkeeper. Secondly, the posts weren't always terribly secure when left free-standing, and stanchions helped to anchor the goals.

Until the 1920s, the posts were square-shaped, before clubs started using a somewhat less predictable elliptical shape (the most famous crossbar in history, though - the one that failed to give a definitive answer on Geoff Hurst's goal for England against West Germany in 1966 - were round). Most English clubs switched from using wooden goals to aluminium goals over a period of time, though the older style square posts lasted longer in Scotland (after a riot at the Scottish Cup final between Rangers and Celtic in 1909, a particularly robust set of posts were installed that would remain in place until the late 1980s, which is surely a record of some sort).

There has been more or less constant talk of making the size of goals bigger for years now, which reached a crushingly dull crescendo in the build up to the 1994 World Cup. Although I don't agree with it, there is some merit in the idea. Depending on which surveys you read, the average male in the UK is between two and three inches taller than he was a hundred years ago, so on that level it makes sense make the goals bigger. Having said that, though, there have been numerous changes to the rules over the last century to encourage more attacking football, and increasing the size of the goals merely to increase the scores in matches would, I feel, be counter-productive in that it would merely devalue the act of scoring in the first place. The match that finishes 4-4 is so precious precisely because of its rarity.

The rigging behind the goals has provided just as much controversy over the last hundred years or so. In 1909, West Bromwich Albion scored a perfectly good goal in a league match against Blackpool, only to see the ball bounce out and the referee wave play on. Albion won the match, but missed out on promotion on goal average (the precursor to goal difference) as a result. In 1970, Aston Villa were victims of the same thing and in 1979 (and arguably most famously of all) Crystal Palace had a perfectly good goal ruled out when Clive Allen's shot at Coventry hit the stanchion at the back of the goal and bounced back out again (this is the only footage of it on YouTube - try to ignore the bleatings of Skinner & Baddiel). This was a potential problem that clubs had already taken into consideration. Some clubs, such as Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City, took to hanging their nets in front of the back stanchion, whilst others switched to D-shaped stanchions to try and reduce this sort of thing from happening (things went to the other extreme when England played Hungary at the Nep Stadium in Budapest in June 1981, and Trevor Brooking's twenty yard shot got wedged in stanchion).

Nets also evolved over the years. In the early 1970s, clubs started introducing "anti-hooliganism" nets. Traditionally, goal nets have a 4" mesh, but anti-hooligan nets have a smaller mesh, which supposedly makes them more difficult to climb in the event of a pitch invasion. Over the years, clubs have tentatively experimented - Everton's nets went dark blue in the early 1980s, whilst Grimsby Town (and others - but Grimsby were the first, thanks to to the local fishing industry) had striped nets. I could swear that, on a visit to Parc Des Princes in about 1987, Paris St Germain had goal nets that lit up "GOL!" in a crazy zig-zag shaped balloon when someone scored (since I can find no reference to it anywhere, I may have dreamt this - my memory tells me that they were discontinued after they started malfunctioning and flashing up "GOL!" on any number of random occasions, but still I'm seeking some sort of confirmation on this from elsewhere, if anyone can provide any). From a practical perspective (and I spent about four years putting them up and taking them down every other week), the biggest single problem is that they weigh so much - well over twice as much as standard nets. The plus side of them is that they are considerably more hard-wearing than standard nets and are, in the long run, are more cost-effective.

The current fashion is for the "continental box" style of goal. Debuted at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, it leaves the net completely free from impediment, supported at the back by poles that sit behind the goal. It is, whether accidental or not, a link with the past, as can be seen from this (tiny) picture from the 1927 FA Cup Final. Personally, I'm not a fan (and neither, it would appear, is South America - as this picture from the Maracana shows). This style of goal would be more tolerable were it not for the recent fashion for securing the nets with a base tube (as in the picture above), as opposed to the traditional method of pegging the nets down. This idea was born in Ipswich where, in the early 1980s, the groundsman grew tired of having to tie the nets up every time he wanted to mow the grass on the pitch. He put a base tube around the goal with a hinge at the base of each post, so that the nets could be lifted in one go. Whilst the convenience for the groundsman is obvious, it is strangely less satisfying for the spectator. The ball now hardly ever "nestles" in the corner of the goal and several times I've seen a shot powerful enough to lift the whole base of the goal off the ground. Stamford Bridge seems to be particularly bad for this sort of thing. The other latest trend (on the continent, at least) seems to be for coloured nets again. Euro 2004 saw the Portuguese use black nets on the goals and in recent years the Champions League final has seen the traditional nets taken down and replaced with black or green nets. Don't expect to see any changes too soon, either. Commercialism may be running wild in football, but FIFA rules still say that the posts have to be white, and a recent diktat from Sepp & Co confirmed that sponsors logos are not allowed to be sewn into the design of the nets.

So there we are. The act of seeing a goal may be less satisfying than it used to be, but the game's authorities have resisted the temptation to tinker too much with the 8 yard x 8 foot goal that has served the game perfectly well for well over a hundred years. And I will continue to get a little tingle in run down my spine when I see a pitch fully marked out, with nets hanging from the goals. I should probably seek some sort of help.


ursus arctos said...


I am afraid you are likely hallucinating about PSG. I left Paris in 85, and didn't get back until '93, but I read pretty much every word of France Football in the interim and never heard of such nets.

The fact you mention PSG makes me wonder whether you are aware of the absolute obsession of French supporters of a certain age over the issue of square vs. round posts. 30 million Frenchmen attribute St. Etienne's loss to Bayern in the 1975 European Cup Final entirely to the fact that Hampden had the square posts favoured by those in perfide Albion.

Had the posts been round (as they were in all right-thinking places where French is the only recognised language and unpasteurised cheeses are readily available), they believe with absolute certainty, les Verts' shot that bounced off the post would have gone in and the club team that captured the hearts of an entire country in a way never seen before or since would have lifted the cup that was "rightly" theirs.

Moving east, there was a famous incident of a Zweite Bundesliga match being replayed because the referee gave a goal that entered the net from the side.

Here is Uli Hesse Lichtenberg's description of that one (and a somewhat related incident):

"In 1978-79, also in the Second Bundesliga, Borussia Neunkirchen, the club best known for producing Stefan Kuntz, set a record by having to replay not one but two of their matches.

On October 21, 1978, they beat Kickers Stuttgart 4-3, but the winner was irregular.

Television footage proved that the ball had missed the target and then entered the goal from the rear through a hole in the netting. The DFB announced the match had to be replayed, but FIFA were not happy with this decision, arguing that you mustn't reverse a refereeing decision. Still, the game went ahead and Stuttgart won 1-0.

Later that season, Neunkirchen beat Saarbr├╝cken 2-1, but that game got annulled as well. A lady by the name of Ina vom Mossberg had bitten Saarbr├╝cken's Erich Unger in the thigh, whereupon the latter had to be substituted.

Miss Vom Mossberg was working for the police on that day, and since she happened to be a German shepherd we can understand why Mister Unger disliked her overtures. Neunkirchen also won the replay, 1-0."

200percent said...

There was a "goal" similar to this scored at a Chelsea match in the 1970s some time in which a shot from a tight angle went wide but hit the back stanchion and bounced back out - the referee, standing on the exact other side of the penalty area, gave a goal. It's on YouTube somewhere, but I'm struggling to find it.

The PSG things is something that I'm certain happened to some extent. The match I can remember quite vividly - it was a 1-1 draw against Lille in about 1986 or 1987. My French isn't quite good enough to be able to search for it properly on Google, though!

ursus arctos said...

Well, I've done some Googling in French rather than the work I need to complete, and come up empty.

The French for goal net is "filets de but", btw.

The draw with Lille seems to have been in 88-89, btw. Calderon scored for PSG and there were only 10,702 at the Parc.

Steve said...

Fantastic piece 200percent.

My favourite goals in the football league are at Kenilworth Road. They must be the shallowest in the football league. There simply isn't the room to have the continental style box goals.

Also, I remember reading a great comic book story about a manager scouting two centre forwards to add to his squad for a promotion push. One of the strikers "bagged a brace " in the game but kept arguing with the referee. The other striker scored only one, he also scored a goal through the side netting. The referee wanted to award it, but the honest striker told the ref what had happened. What a guy!

The manager obviously bought the honest striker who went on to score the winning goal to earn his team promotion. Morals and nets. Marvellous. Not sure why I needed to share that with you, but still...

I also feel the need to say that I have always endorsed the construction of football posts to construct stanchions that the ball can get stuck in, as I feel that modern day goal stanchions are too large for a ball to get stuck.

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