"Pre-order online and you'll not only actually be supporting the football club directly, but you'll also receive an LFC beach set worth almost £20! The LFC beach set includes a crest-printed velour towel, a crest-printed beach ball and a crest-printed beach bag!"
It was a merchandising gimmick that many Liverpool supporters snapped up. As the 2003-04 campaign drew to a close, fans were encouraged to pre-order next season's home shirt with the promise of a free gift that would surely come in handy during the summer holidays. However, one particular LFC beach ball was destined for much more than just a trip to the seaside...
For several years, the beach ball lay forgotten, a piece of folded plastic in the wardrobe of a teenage boy's bedroom in Wiltshire, uninflated and unloved - until a Friday night in mid-October, when a hunt for an old replica shirt to lend to a friend unearthed it. The next day, it travelled with its owner to Wearside, to add to the atmosphere in the away end of a Sunderland v Liverpool fixture in the Premier League.
Liverpool came into the game on the back of a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea in their previous outing, having also lost to Tottenham and Aston Villa in the league already that season, while Sunderland had experienced a topsy-turvy start to the campaign.
Having been blown up before kick-off at the Stadium of Light, the beach ball was still being tossed around by Reds fans in good spirits right up until the teams walked out of the tunnel. It floated down to the front of the stand, where a 16-year-old called Callum Campbell gave it a firm punch and sent it towards the field of play where it blew into the net.
Why no one - player, steward, official - chose to clear it away remains unclear, but that was far from the strangest decision made in Sunderland that day. A gust of wind likely lifted it once more, so that it moved gently and unobtrusively into the penalty area. Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina certainly didn't notice it, at least not until the fifth minute of the game when Sunderland launched an attack that saw Andy Reid cross in from the right.
"I have been asked so many times why I didn't just kick the beach-ball off the pitch as soon as it was thrown on," Reina recalls in his 2011 autobiography, "but I only realised it was right in front of me when Reid crossed the proper football into the box - and there it was."
Steed Malbranque helped Reid's delivery on its journey bouncing towards the far post, where Darren Bent was positioned. Glen Johnson was between the striker and Reina - but now, so was the beach ball, resting stubbornly on the six-yard line. Reina is sure he had the shot covered but he could not have anticipated what would happen next, as Johnson stuck out his foot in a bid to divert Bent's effort round the post. Instead, boot, football and beach ball all appeared to collide simultaneously. One ball flew harmlessly wide of the post, the other flicked in to Reina's left. If only their respective routes were reversed, the whole incident might have been largely forgotten about - but referee Mike Jones saw it was the football nestling in the back of the Liverpool net, and blew his whistle to award the hosts a goal.
"My first instinct was to chase the linesman, because I knew that something wasn't right," recalls Reina. "I have to be honest though, and admit that I didn't know exactly what the rule was at that point. I was shouting at the linesman. 'You have to have seen that,' I screamed at him. But he told me the ball hadn't been deflected."
Assistant referee Andy Newbold did consult with Jones, at length - but still they arrived at the initial decision: the goal would stand. Afterwards, former referees such as Graham Poll and Jeff Winter would line up to say how staggering it was, that none of the officials knew the FIFA law that any "outside interference" should have resulted in the goal - the first Sunderland had managed to score against Liverpool for almost seven years - being chalked off. More likely, neither official could be sure that the beach ball itself was to blame.
After Reina had stopped remonstrating, the hosts battled hard to protect their slim advantage, despite a number of setbacks. Due to illness, George McCartney failed to emerge after the interval, meaning Lorik Cana had to drop back into central defence. Lee Cattermole and Kenwyne Jones were both stretchered off within eight second-half minutes, with a touchline row erupting as Jones received treatment because Rafael Benitez had accused Steve Bruce's side of time-wasting. Seven minutes of stoppage time were played, during which Craig Gordon making a stunning double save to deny first Dirk Kuyt and then David Ngog.
Sunderland's narrow victory moved them above Liverpool into seventh place in the table after nine games played. Referee Jones was demoted to take charge of Peterborough v Scunthorpe in the Championship the following weekend, but was still back taking charge of Premier League matches before the month was out.
For Campbell, the boy who was caught on camera punching the beach ball towards the pitch, a fleeting fame ensued. There were idiotic death threats from keyboard warriors on the internet, while the papers also came calling. "This is my worst, worst nightmare," he said. "How was I supposed to know what would happen?"
The Reds would get a measure of revenge on Sunderland when they won the reverse fixture 3-0 at Anfield the following March. Only Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney hit more top-flight goals than Bent as Sunderland finished 13th in the table that season, while Liverpool ended up in seventh spot. They only qualified for Europe by virtue of FA Cup runners-up Portsmouth having missed UEFA's deadline for applications, due to being in administration. A week after the season ended, Benitez left the club by mutual consent after six seasons in charge, and was replaced by Roy Hodgson.
As for the beach ball itself, comedian Dara O'Briain suggested in The Guardian that it deserved to take its place in the National Football Museum - and that is indeed where it now rests. Having been purchased for over £400 by a Sunderland greengrocer in a charity auction, it was then donated to the Museum when it reopened in Manchester, and can be found among the exhibits in the 'Laws' section. "This is an important object in recent footballing history because it means lots of different things to different people," said collections officer Sally Hawley, for whom the beach ball is her favourite item in the whole museum.
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