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The Collina Match Part 2: a chat with Royal Blue Mersey

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Everton fans still aren’t over it.

Second Edition Of ‘The Festival Of Sport’ In Trento Photo by Massimo Bertolini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When I started working on this piece, I sent Thomas Mallows, lifelong Everton supporter and mastermind behind SB Nation’s Royal Blue Mersey site a line asking for ‘a few sentences’ about the Villarreal vs Everton match and specifically the controversial Collina decision that some view as the deciding point in the tie. Tom surprised me, giving an extended take born partly, I’m sure, out of making sure he gave me enough information but also clearly out of still being passionate about this result 14 years later. Part 1 is mostly about the match itself, some tactical analysis, some shock at all the names involved, a highlight video. Part two will be about that call. So, with no further ado, take it away Tom:

“Evertonians are used to fate dealing them a bad hand, but the Collina incident felt like a real sliding doors moment in the club’s recent history. It was bad enough to be drawn against arguably the toughest team in the hat, but to be on the end of such a poor call at a critical moment of the game really stings.

Even to this day I cannot see what was wrong with Ferguson’s goal. Collina later tried to shift the blame onto Marcus Bent, but replays showed that was not the case either.

Conspiracy theorists out there point to Collina’s appointment and subsequent retirement as some sort of UEFA plan to ensure there were not five English teams in the Champions League group stage (they had already changed the rules to allow 2005 winners Liverpool into the first qualifying round, with the Reds subsequently playing TNS, FBK Kaunas and CSKA Sofia to reach the main draw).

Such a theory is both unlikely and impossible to prove. But what was clear is Collina saw Ferguson as an aggressive thug and could not wait to put him in his place by calling for a foul that wasn’t there.

There is no guarantee we would have gone on to win the game of course, Ferguson’s goal would have only sent the game to extra time. But there is no doubt it was the Toffees who would have had the momentum going into the closing stages.

Having worked so hard to beat the odds and claim fourth place the previous season, to go out in the qualifying rounds in such circumstances took a long time to get over. They were bundled out of the UEFA Cup 5-2 on aggregate by Dinamo Bucharest the following month and were rooted to the bottom of the Premier League until late October, eventually recovering to finish 11th. The haven’t got near to the Champions League since.

Reaching the group stage would not have cured all their financial ills, but it would have guaranteed some memorable Goodison Park moments and sent the club on a wildly different path. It’s such a shame that we will never know where that could have taken us.”

What resonated with me a lot about what Tom said was when he talked about Collina’s perception of Ferguson. I noted in part 1 about how there were several relatively light calls against Ferguson early on. In some respects a player has to adjust to this, and I think that if Ferguson had changed his approach early in the match perhaps Collina would have been mollified by the second half and seen nothing wrong with the goal. But narratives are always part of officiating football matches. We do this all the time when argue that a player shouldn’t get a 50/50 yellow card because it was his first infraction of a match, or perhaps he should get that card because he has several fouls and has been warned already.

I’m biased towards Villarreal in this thing, but I’ve also written about Everton with Tom at RBM so I think I’m more objective than most with a rooting interest here. I don’t think it was a foul, I also don’t think referees determine results in a football match. It’s not Collina’s fault Everton didn’t take other chances in the match. It’s not Collina’s fault they were outplayed most of the night, and it’s not Collina’s fault they were behind for a good portion of the night and gave up two goals. Luck is a major factor in football, that’s part of why we love it, but sides also create situations that allow them to be lucky, and at the end of the day Villlarreal did that better than Everton.

Thank you Tom for sharing your take. It was a remarkable moment for these two sides to be a part of, and I can only hope that Villarreal and Everton see each other in the Champions League again one day.

Nil Satis Nisi Optimum

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