Darren Bent's Infamous Beach Ball Goal Remembered, 10 Years On From Sinking Liverpool
"The Stadium Of Light erupts!" screams the Sky Sports commentator. "It's the man in form who strikes the first blow." Darren Bent wheels off to celebrate with 47,000 delirious Sunderland fans, sticking his tongue out as he peers over his shoulder at his teammates.
Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina looks around for an explanation as to what just happened. Full-back Glen Johnson has his arm in the air, remonstrating with the referee.
"This angle will tell as much, much more," says the co-commentator as he watches a slow-motion of a replay of the goal. "It is off the balloon! And that is so controversial!"
Bent's sweetly struck shot had deflected off a red beach ball with a Liverpool FC crest emblazoned on the front and looped over a dumbfounded Reina. Referee Mike Jones incorrectly awarded the goal. A decade on, SPORTbible tells the story of one of the strangest goals in football history.
When it rains, it pours and in October 2009 Rafa Benitez was getting drenched. He headed into the ninth round of Premier League matches without his two star players - Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres - both injured during the international week.
Having finished second to Manchester United the previous season, missing out on the title by just four points, Liverpool were aiming to win their first league title since 1990. But the Merseysiders lost three of their opening eight games, which all but ended their chances of winning the Premier League before Christmas.
Sunderland were just two points behind them in eighth and coming into the game off the back of a 5-2 win over Wolves and 2-2 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford. The Stadium of Light was jumping as both sets of fans rallied their troops.
A 16-year-old Callum Campbell was hyped. Letting loose in the away end he whalloped a beach ball onto the pitch before kick-off. No one cleared it and five minutes into the contest Sunderland swept forward.
The beach ball lurked in the penalty box like a sneaky centre-forward waiting to dispossess a goalkeeper. Andy Reid skipped past Liverpool's Fabio Aurelio and crossed the ball into the box with his rarely used right foot. It found its way to Bent, who hit a first-time shot goalwards. Johnson stuck out a leg, Reina went down to collect it, but the beach ball glanced it past the Spanish goalkeeper, who zeroed in on the bouncy red orb and not the Nike Total 90 Ascente that rippled the back of the net.
Sunderland hung onto their lead and ensured Liverpool made their worst start to a season for 22 years. Last year, on the ninth anniversary of the goal, Reina responded to a tweet referencing it with the words: "Who the hell put the ball in there?"
Who the hell put the ball in there??:disappointed_relieved: https://t.co/SOypAvV4vD
- Pepe Reina (@PReina25) October 17, 2018
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Campbell's worst night had become reality - he had helped the opposition beat this beloved Reds. "When I got home I went into the garden and threw up. I was physically sick - and that's before the death threats started appearing on the internet the next day," he told the Daily Mirror.
"I watched it over and over again, and I still can't work out how it happened. But my mum tells me it wasn't my fault - and that's what I have to believe. The referee should never have allowed the goal. I just hope the real fans understand and forgive me."
Campbell's mum was right, the goal shouldn't have stood. According to Fifa's rulebook "the referee should stop, suspend or abandon the match because of outside interference of any kind".
But Jones didn't rule the goal out and restart the match with a drop ball. He signalled for a goal. The Premier League suspended him for this glaring error. That was scant consolation for Campbell who was under siege from enraged Liverpool fans online.
"Television made it look like I lobbed the beach ball on to the pitch and straight away it hit the match ball," recalled Campbell, who would now be 26-years-old.
"But the truth is, the game hadn't started. The teams were just coming out. And the beach ball wasn't even mine. I'd never seen one before. The crowd were bouncing it around above their heads, then it came my way and I just took a big swing and knocked it towards the pitch. After that the wind carried it into the net."
It was the eighth time Bent had found the net that season, contributing to his career total of 212 over the course of 17 years. This is the only one fans want to talk about.
"A little kid from the Liverpool end threw it on the pitch and a lot of people have asked me whether or not I aimed for it," he recalled during an appearance on Goals on Sunday earlier this year.
"Obviously not, I was trying to hit the target. It was crazy because at the time I hit the ball and I just thought it was a goal.
"At half-time the referee asked me if I hit the beach ball and I said I think so. He looked really worried as if he realised he had made a mistake but for me, I just ran off (to celebrate)."It is the one goal what everybody asks me about so it is a good memory to have."
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