DUBAI: Sometime on Sunday afternoon, as you sit at home not watching football, an infamous moment in the history of the beautiful game will celebrate, if that’s the right word, its 40th anniversary.
There was, to be clear, nothing beautiful about it. It is more a lament of an act that deprived us of something beautiful.
On May 10, 1980, with only three minutes of the FA Cup final between West Ham and Arsenal left, the incident in question would end up having a profound impact on the laws of football in the ensuing four decades.
With the Hammers leading 1-0 thanks to Trevor Brooking’s early header, a young footballer by the name of Paul Allen, at 17 then Wembley’s youngest ever finalist, found himself through on goal with only Arsenal goalkeeper Pat Jennings to beat.
One of the most romantic stories in the history of the FA Cup - a competition that fetishizes fairytales - was about to be written.
Enter the joy-killing brute that was Willie Young.
As Allen ran towards his destiny, the big, red-headed Arsenal defender callously, almost matter-of-factly, swiped his legs from beneath him in what remains one of the most memorable professional fouls ever seen at the highest level of the game.
Around the world, millions of hearts broke.
“Oh what a pity, a cynical foul by Willie Young” commentator John Motson said, barely concealing his annoyance.
39 years ago today Willie Young ruins little Paul Allen’s FA Cup fairytale.
John Motson’s absolutely appalled by the shithousery unfolding before his very eyes...pic.twitter.com/DEwnt3ohuM
— Proper Football (@sid_lambert) May 10, 2019
Perhaps unfairly, that moment continues to vilify Young even more than it beatifies the cherubic Allen.
After all, in stopping an almost certain goal, Young was only doing his job - just as Luis Suarez was doing his when that notorious handball denied Ghana a dramatic quarter-final win over Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup. In both cases, the referees punished the guilty players to the fullest extent of the law.
But the law in 1980 was significantly more forgiving than it was 30 years later. As Allen commendably picked himself up with little complaint or overreaction, Young received a yellow card, and everyone got on with their business.
Today, to use a modern cliché, a similar crime would send social media into a meltdown. Just as well that West Ham won the cup that day.
The fallout from Young’s act would still, eventually, be long term and significant. For it was this high-profile incident that set in motion a sequence of debates that led to the now established practice of sending off players for “Denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity,” according to the laws of the game.
A cynical last resort tackle, crucially by the “last man”, or last defender, must surely lead to greater consequences. Young’s yellow card was just not enough.
In hindsight, it all seems so obvious. But things didn’t change overnight, despite the setting up of a committee by the English Football League to come up with a law to ensure the professional foul is dealt with more strictly.
It was not until 1982 - the year that West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher, in a World Cup semi-final, assaulted France’s Patrick Battiston in a manner infinitely worse than Young’s tackle, and got away with it - that a recommendation for sending off the offending player was put forward to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the game’s lawmakers.
At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, France would, remarkably, be on the receiving end of another professional foul by a goalkeeper that would go unpunished. An incredibly tense, and brilliant, quarter-final against Brazil was finely balanced at 1-1 with four minutes of extra time left, when French substitute Bruno Bellone found himself bearing down on Brazil’s goalkeeper. Unlike Allen six years earlier, Bellone had no defenders in pursuit, but as he nudged the ball past Carlos, the desperate goalkeeper attempted to grab hold of him. Commendably, the Frenchman stayed on his feet instead of going down for a penalty, but was knocked off balance sufficiently to ensure the goalscoring opportunity was gone.
Worse still, Brazil almost scored seconds later. The French were furious, but justice was ultimately done when, unlike against the German in 1982, they triumphed on penalties in the heat of Guadalajara.
It was only in 1990 that the law would change to ensure professional fouls that stopped a goalscoring opportunity were punishable with a straight red card.
Not that the change in the law stopped controversies. A goal-scoring opportunity, at that stage at least, was still subject to a judgment call by the referee.
Young’s foul was as blatant as they come, but now even a legitimate attempt by a defender, especially the last defender, could see an over-enthusiastic referee waving his red card before the attacker has even finished rolling on the ground.
And sometimes the punishment exceeds the crime. A penalty, most likely leading to a goal, on top of a sending off, seems extremely harsh. And doubly so if the dismissed player happens to be the goalkeeper, necessitating the introduction of a substitute keeper for an innocent, sacrificial and no doubt furious, outfield player.
And so, the double jeopardy law was amended in 2017, to save the offending team from multiple punishments. In the case of a penalty being awarded for a foul, it gives the referee the discretion to give an offending player a yellow card instead of a red - if the challenge is deemed to be a “legitimate” attempt at winning the ball.
Then, of course, came VAR, which is awhile other story.
Suffice to say that while Young’s discretion could be seen clearly from the moon, what sometimes passes for a professional foul these days would have barely registered 40 years ago, and even the most minor of touches are today pedantically scrutinized for minutes on end.
This has led to a more clinical interpretation of the rules, which unsurprisingly has left almost everyone unhappy. Ultimately, the professional foul turns out to be as much a psychological issue as a legal one. It leaves a seething sense of injustice, even when correctly punished.
The wronged team, like Ghana in 2010, don’t always believe they got what they deserved, even though the law had been carried out perfectly and to their benefit.
But in 1980 at least, there was justice and joy for Allen. At the final whistle, and 10 years before Paul Gascoigne’s famous tears flowed at Italia 90, the youngster broke down and openly wept in the fatherly arms of match-winner Brooking, who had lit up Wembley with one of the finest individual cup final displays of all time. The youngster even got a big hug from Young himself.
In the scorching sun, Allen then walked up the famous stairs at the old Wembley and received his winners medal from the Duchess of Kent.
And all was perfect with the world.
As injuries hampered the remainder of Young’s career, Allen went on to play in two more FA Cup finals with Tottenham; losing 3-2 to Coventry in 1987, and beating Nottingham Forest 2-1 in 1991.
Yet that gloriously sunny May day in 1980 will forever define him. It also changed modern football as we know it.