There is a lifelong Liverpool fan named Callum Campbell who propriates the most unique of places in Premier League history. While he never made it onto the pitch himself, something he threw in October 2009 certainly did – an inflatable beach ball that soon played a pivotal role in perhaps the most bizarre, ridiculous and illegitimate goal the Premier League has witnessed throughout its 25 years in existence.
A young 16-year-old travelling to Sunderland on an exciting away day, when a beach ball bounced into his path amid a crowd of feisty Scousers ready to cheer on their beloved Reds, Campbell innocently and jubilantly flung his arm at it, as any teenager eager to impress his terrace peers inevitably would. The wind carried the beach ball onto the pitch and then into the goal, which is exactly where it stayed until the match started.
As Liverpool struggled to gain a foothold on the match in the absence of Xabi Alonso (sold), Steven Gerrard (injured), Fernando Torres (injured) and Javier Mascherano (benched) – the four players most pivotal to their runner-up finish the season prior – few probably noticed as the ball started to creep back out of the net and into Pepe Reina’s six-yard box.
Just five minutes into play, though, the beach ball was the centre of everybody’s attention – and the new centre of Campbell’s universe. Darren Bent, enjoying the form of his career after a club-record move to the Stadium of Light, scuffed his connection with a Steed Malbranque cross. But as Reina leant down in preparation for a save, Bent’s effort bounced off the beach ball, spinning it into the opposite direction and leaving the Liverpool goalkeeper in a painful combination of helplessness and confusion.
That was the only goal in a disappointing performance at the Stadium of Light, which actually saw Sunderland leapfrog Liverpool in the Premier League table, and the backlash against Campbell was huge. He recounts death threats from all over the world; some told him to leave town, others advised him to buy a coffin and one particular troller declared he’d turn him into a curry.
“I’m the one who did it. I’m the one caught on camera. I’m so, so sorry. This is my worst, worst nightmare. When I got home I went into the garden and threw up. I was physically sick – and that’s before the death threats started appearing on the internet the next day.
“When I looked closer these people were from America and Australia and all over the world – so-called fans who never come to Liverpool. So after that, I just ignored them. I knew the true fans wouldn’t threaten me like that – they would know I was more cut up about what happened than anyone else.”
But in truth, the last person at fault for the goal or the result was a Liverpool-loving teenager who’d flailed an arm at a crowd-pleasing prop that was brought to Wearside to have arms flailed at it. For starters, as several leading former referees immediately protested, the goal should never have stood. The official rule is that play must stop if the ball makes contact with a foreign object and restart with a drop ball. Referee Mike Jones should have known that, and he was demoted to the Championship the following weekend.
Arguably more significantly, though, the goal glossed over a poor performance from Liverpool in a match they had little right to win. Bent also hit the post and the bar while team-mates saw efforts cleared off the line as Benitez’s attempt to curtail the early form Sunderland had shown that season by lining up Liverpool in a 5-4-1 backfired spectacularly. Bad results against theoretically lesser teams were a recurring theme throughout Liverpool’s 2009/10, which ended with them finishing in seventh place and Benitez receiving his marching orders.
The beach ball, for all its mischief, was a minute part in that. But in many ways, it epitomises exactly what we love about the Premier League; crowd participation, albeit somewhat more direct and inadvertent than usual, sheer ridiculousness finding a way to have equal influence as top-class talent, controversial refereeing decisions and the dash of unpredictability that makes English football so special. It was as if the footballing gods decided fate would deal Liverpool a cruel blow at the Stadium of Light, and accordingly prevent them recovering from it.
As much shame as Campbell felt at the time, as the internet produced a typically malicious backlash, he should be proud for providing the Premier League with one of its most bizarre and unforgettable moments that, in its own strange way, captured the idiosyncrasies which make English football so uniquely special.