Counting your blessings

Football has changed in many ways since the 1960s but one rule hasn’t. For many, including Seb Patrick, away goals continue to confuse and annoy

On message boards, phone-ins and WSC letters pages alike, the refrain is a familiar one. “Why, oh why, do commentators insist on saying during a European tie that ‘away goals count double’? If they counted double then a team that lost 3-2 away from home would be considered to have won 4-3!”

As it happens, the Laws of the Game do actually use the phrase “count double”. Nevertheless, this is just one of the many controversies that have surrounded the away goals rule ever since its introduction. There are many, Arsène Wenger among their most high-profile and vociferous, who claim that nowadays it is an outdated and unfair system of settling ties. But is this really the case, and if so, how did it become so?

The problem of how to settle a draw goes back as far as the introduction of two-legged continental ties – themselves a method of avoiding unfair weighting in favour of whichever team might have been drawn at home in a single-leg tie. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, ties that saw a stalemate after two legs would be decided by a third game on neutral territory. However, with no definitive method of deciding a 90-minute match either, this left open the possibility of a continued deadlock after a full 270 minutes of football. Such was the case in 1965, when three successive draws between Liverpool and Cologne in the European Cup led to Bill Shankly’s side going through to the semi-finals on the toss of a coin.

Whether this near-farcical circumstance was the catalyst for the creation of the away goals rule is not a matter of public record – but it can surely be no coincidence that the 1965-66 season saw it introduced in the Cup-Winners Cup, where the first beneficiaries were Budapest Honved in a defeat of Dukla Prague. The Fairs Cup and European Cup followed suit in 1966 and 1967 respectively. Oddly, it was only introduced in the first round of the latter to begin with, its use increasing in increments over the next couple of years.

It is not hard to see why it made sense at the time. Away ties on the continent really were significantly more difficult, introducing players to opponents, styles of play and atmospheres that would be entirely unfamiliar and disorientating. It wouldn’t be uncommon for sides to rack up comfortable 3-0 wins at home, before losing to a similar margin in the away leg. Since scoring a goal away from home was seen as such a challenge, the norm would be for visiting teams simply to shut up shop with the aim of keeping the losing margin as low as possible. Introducing the away goals rule, as well as being a new way of settling ties, was designed to encourage a more attacking outlook from the visitors, by rewarding those hard-won goals.

Even the rule’s early years were not free from controversy. In 1971, Rangers and Sporting drew 6-6 on aggregate in the Cup-Winners Cup second round. Rangers had scored three away goals to Sporting’s two, but the referee erroneously sent the game to a penalty shootout, which Sporting promptly won 3-0. After the match, Rangers appealed and were awarded the game – they went on to win the competition. Although an extreme example, this sort of confusion would typify the application of the rule in 
subsequent years.

Most notably, with different competitions applying the rule in different ways, even to this day it is possible to get to the end of a game and not immediately know whether the rule should be applied after 90 minutes, extra time or both. Controversially, Burnley were denied passage to the Carling Cup final in 2009, when a level score after 90 minutes of the second leg would have seen them go through had the tie been in Europe – but the rules of the domestic tournament allowed Spurs to go on and score the winner in extra time instead.

What’s more, as the years have advanced, and domestic football in each country has become increasingly cosmopolitan, the simple matter of scoring an away goal in Europe is not seen as the challenge it once was. Set against the considerably increased familiarity of continental opponents – it is entirely feasible for a team like Manchester United to play a team like Barcelona more times in a season than they do other Premier League clubs – the weighting is seen by many as significantly in favour of an away team. While this is still (mostly) evened out by playing two legs, it often leads to the reverse effect of that which the rule was designed to counteract, as it is now customary for home teams to play a negative, defensive game in the first leg, treating the prevention of an away goal as the utmost aim.

For all of the problems with the rule, though, it is a simple fact that FIFA and UEFA have struggled to find an alternative. A return to winner-takes-all replays just wouldn’t be an option in the fixture-heavy Champions League era and the away goals rule is unique in being a solution that adds no extra, wearying minutes to a tie. Imperfect though the rule may be, finding some method of rewarding stronger-than-expected performance to differentiate between otherwise deadlocked teams is a solid enough concept. But perhaps the parameters need a shift to account for an era that is drastically different from the 1960s. Home Goals rule, anyone?

From WSC 295 September 2011