Ear we go…

Racing Genk have recently experiemented with earpiece technology, enabling the coaching staff to send orders to their keeper. Despite being used in cycling, Genk's innovative approach was a global first in football, as John Chapman writes

Where did Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary anger and desire to win come from? Some say it’s due to the time he spent as an apprentice tool-worker, but others trace it back to Rangers’ 4-0 defeat by Celtic in the 1969 Scottish Cup final. Fer­gie was made the scapegoat for the de­feat, after he failed to mark Willie McNeil at a corner two minutes into the match. Almost as the final whistle blew, Ferguson was on his way out of Ibrox, seemingly into obscurity.

That was 35 years ago and we must fast-forward to a cold wet January night in Genk, Bel­gium. The home team are playing Club Brugge. Racing Genk’s keeper Jan Moons has a large sticking plaster over his left ear. That’s unusual, as he’s not known for wearing an earring. And Genk coach Sef Ver­goossen seems to be spending a lot of time on the phone. Vergoossen is in fact passing instructions to Moons via an ear­piece.

Remarkably, Genk’s innovative approach was a global first for football. The Belgian club has been testing various ways of improving communications for many months. Such technology has long been used in cycling for team bosses who want to communicate with cyclists on the road and in American football.

Assistant coach Jos Daerden was delighted after the game. Not only had Genk won, but the coaching staff had been able to react quickly when the opposition changed their shape and had been able to make decisions as to who was marking whom at corners – just a few judicious words to Moons did the trick. For a week he was a celebrity, but he soon tired of the interviews – eventually informing journalists that, no, he was not told which way to dive, before they had even asked the question.

Genk also used the technology in their next game – a 4-3 defeat at Charleroi. Maybe there was some interference on the line for that match and, yes, there is already talk of clubs using jamming devices to stop the opposing bench’s instructions getting through.

The innovation caused a bit of a furore. Belgium coach Aimé Anth­uenis likes the idea – on condition that UEFA and FIFA approve it. Anthuenis feels it could revolutionise the game and he foresees a time when teams might equip three or four key players (keeper, central defender, midfield dynamo, etc) who would be responsible for passing on orders.

FIFA have confirmed that it’s not illegal. Law Four states: “Any equipment… must not be dangerous to the player, and whether it is or not is left to… the referee.” The FA’s David Davies said: “We’ve always been interested in new technology,” and Scotland’s Berti Vogts is known to be a big fan. But Alain Cour­tois, who ran Euro 2000, described Genk’s revolution as “ridiculous”, adding: “Football is a game for men, not technology.”

But what about that 1969 cup final? What if young Alex had been wired up to Rangers coach Davie White? He would have noticed that Fergie had gone AWOL and told him to cover McNeil. Ferguson would have tracked back, waved a quick “sorry boss”, climbed all over McNeil, given away a penalty, been sent off and… drifted into eventual obscurity.

From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month