There was a time when it was near impossible to beat Liverpool with Pepe Reina between the sticks. Rafa Benitez set up his team to be as combative as possible, and they always had their goalkeeper ready as a capable last line behind their defence.
Reina collected numerous personal accolades as he always gave his team a chance to collect the three points, and there was a general feeling that 2009/10 could finally be the season in which they finally claimed that elusive maiden Premier League win since the format change.
The Reds were a team with plausible title credentials, despite the slightly slapdash way they were brought together in the first place. The manager had nurtured his side over the past couple of seasons, and the team looked like they were ready to jump the final hurdle after coming so close the year before. They had finished as the runners-up in the previous season, but it seemed like they were finally ready to claim their first title since winning Division One in 1989/90.
Their manager is known for his tactical acumen, although the team were visibly tiring through October. They lost their last league match, suffering a disappointing 2-0 defeat at the hands of Chelsea. Sunderland were up next, in a must-win game if they wanted to keep up the pressure on the early frontrunners. Benitez rung the changes, opting for a 4-5-1 that would offer some much needed relief for Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. The two key men were rested, but Liverpool were confident of claiming all three points before the game kicked off.
As it turned out, a Liverpool branded beach ball would soon become the object of their misery, as it scored on it’s debut at the Stadium of Light. After five minutes, the (foot)ball spilled out to Darren Bent, and this happened as he fired a hopeful shot towards goal.
Bent’s shot hit the inflatable, leaving Reina visibly confused as both balls flew towards the goal in different directions. His head spun as he was unable to choose which to go for, and he ended up flat-footed as both nestled in the back of opposite corners of the net. It was pure comedy, and Bent was quick to take credit after the game.
“I just remember hitting the shot, it hitting the top of the balloon and flying in. The balloon was right in the middle of the Liverpool penalty area, so I don't know why they didn't move it. But we'll take it. The goal's mine – it's not a question of having to claim it. It's mine.”
The referee blew his whistle and allowed it to stand, marking one of the strangest goals in Premier League history. Mike Jones was officiating on the day, and he saw nothing wrong with the passage of play, although it's hard to say what he should have done instead. A drop-ball would have probably been the best choice, although it would have been harsh for Sunderland given the source of the inflatable.
The laws of the game state that “the referee should stop, suspend or abandon the match because of outside interference of any kind” which suggests Jones made the wrong choice. He was duly assigned to the Championship for his next game, as his colleagues refused to rally around him. It was just an obvious mistake, although there’s a chance that he didn’t see the deflection as Glen Johnson left a leg dangling out to block the attempt. Jones was allowed back into the fold a week later, and he’s been officiating in the top flight ever since.
Callum Campbell was the unfortunate fan who found himself facing death threats because of his error of judgement. Here’s his plea for understanding after the Daily Mirror tracked him down.
“I watched it over and over again, and I still can’t work out how it happened, but my mum tells me it wasn’t my fault – and that’s what I have to believe. The referee should never have allowed the goal. I just hope the real fans understand and forgive me.”
The video footage that made the rounds on YouTube does give the impression that he threw the ball moments before, but in reality the beach ball flew over to him just before kick-off. He happily spiked it out onto the pitch, where it nestled in the net for a few minutes before drifting out as the ball came into Liverpool’s half. A gust of wind caused it to move and settle while Sunderland were attacking, leading to a moment that Campbell will never forget.
It’s probably the strangest goal in Premier League history, regularly making highlight reels because of the sheer ridiculousness of what happened. If it wasn’t allowed to stand, it might have been little more than an afterthought, but instead it’ll live long in the memory for everyone involved.
On the day itself, Liverpool were poor as they were limited to a few shots from range, and Bent’s deflected goal proved to be the winner. It was their fourth defeat of the season, and they ended up losing nine games as they limped into the last Europa League spot. To his credit, Benitez took responsibility for the overall performance.
“We made some mistakes. We had our chances and we didn't take them. These things can happen in a lot of games. It was in the middle and it was very influential. Pepe might have saved the shot if it hadn't been deflected but we didn't play well – that's the main thing.”
Liverpool finished in seventh, and Benitez left the club at the end of the season after failing to lead the team to the title win they so dearly craved. It was a poor end considering what could have been, but there wasn’t much his side could do when even the elements were conspiring against them. The beach ball might not have been the catalyst, but it represented a memorable moment in a season full of near-misses.
If you’re interested, the original ball is currently on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester. It's not Reina’s fault that he ended up conceding to an inanimate object, although there were rumours that the ball went on to have a decent career at non-league level.