1 June ~ A couple of Stoke fans have been at the centre of a curious saga recently. It's one that's resulted in complaints to Trading Standards and West Ham officials refunding ticket costs for the game at Upton Park this March. Paul and Carolyn Ruane were among a group of around 80 travelling fans who fell foul of the Hammers' oddly-conceived gamesmanship. The home side had placed an extra row of advertising boards a yard or so back from the touchline, in what turned out to be a hopeless attempt to disrupt the mighty throw-ins of Rory Delap.
With the first three rows of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand now afforded a restricted view of the pitch, the Ruanes and others were eventually moved – after complaining to stewards – to alternative seats. The incensed couple subsequently wrote to West Ham, demanding both refund and apology. It was only after bringing in the Trading Standards people that Upton Park execs agreed to hand them their money back. Paul Ruane is now urging similarly affected Stoke fans to follow their example.
Maybe West Ham were merely aping the antics at Burnley a fortnight before, when Brian Laws had the hoardings brought forward to within five feet of the touchline to try and combat the Delap run-up. It didn't work in either case. At Turf Moor, he simply skipped around the barrier instead, with one particularly accurate lob resulting in Tuncay's goal in the 1-1 draw. West Ham actually fared worse, failing to not only stop Delap causing havoc in the penalty box but also Ricardo Fuller from tucking in the game's only goal.
Justice done, you might think. But just when does simple gamesmanship become something more akin to deliberate sabotage? Then-Rangers manager Graeme Souness was completely within his rights to narrow the Ibrox pitch for a tricksy European second leg with Dynamo Kiev in 1987-88. The Russian wingers had caused mayhem in the first game, which Rangers were lucky to lose only 1-0, so Souness tilted the rules to negate a repeat threat. Kiev griped about it all, souring even more after they lost 2-0. Ditto the legitimate spacial psychology at Craven Cottage, where Fulham's tight opponents changing room is designed to cramp both physically and mentally. After United lost there in April 2009, Alex Ferguson moaned that it was "smaller than my office". Or the away facilities at Southampton, painted in such lurid brown colours that it's enough to make you gag.
But all this is mere triflery compared to more sinister, bizarre examples of skullduggery from the past. After their 1-0 defeat to Argentina in the 1990 World Cup, Brazil made the bizarre claim that their water had been spiked. The Argentine Football Federation denied everything, though Diego Maradona confessed on TV later that a bottle of drugged water had been thrown to Brazil full-back Branco during the match. Argentina's then-coach, Carlos Bilardo, had already been the subject of allegations as a player with Estudiantes in the late 1960s, when it was claimed that he stabbed opponents with pins and, in a worrying extension of his role as a qualified gynaecologist, made all-too-specific comments on the health of his rivals' wives.
It's perhaps strangely comforting to imagine that the art of gamesmanship may have its roots here. Wolves boss Stan Cullis, anticipating the Molineux visit of Hungarian aces Honved in 1954, tried a novel idea. Having seen the Hungary national side (comprising mostly Honved players) visibly tire in the mud of the World Cup final defeat against West Germany, Cullis sent his apprentices out onto a rainy pitch with hosepipes pre-match. One of them was a young Ron Atkinson, who helped accentuate what was already a quagmire. Sure enough, Honved surrendered a two-goal lead to lose the game on increasingly heavy legs. And that was just a friendly. Talk about competitive. Rob Hughes