The incident involving Chelsea's Eden Hazard and a Swansea ballboy calls into question the whole point of employing them
Chelsea were playing Tottenham Hotspur in a particularly dreary match when the crowd's attention on one side of Stamford Bridge was drawn to a ballboy who appeared to be writing something in the gravel with his foot. He just managed to complete the legend "Shitty Spurs" before embarrassed officials erased it.
On that occasion the game needed a laugh and the lad was probably feeling as bored as the rest of the Bridge. It was not as if his action held up play.
The function of ballboys is to help keep matches going by returning the ball as swiftly as possible. A simple enough brief, one would have thought, but after what happened at Swansea on Wednesday night involving a ballboy and Chelsea's Eden Hazard it would seem that even this task can have its complications.
Chelsea, 2-0 down after the home leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final against Swansea City, had failed to get a goal back and with 13 minutes remaining the game was looking like a scoreless draw with the Welsh side heading for Wembley. Understandably the losing team were getting desperate and when a ballboy lay on the ball after it had gone out of play Hazard unwisely tried to kick it out from underneath him. The ball dislodged itself but the Belgian seemed to catch the boy in the ribs and was sent off by Chris Foy for violent conduct. Later there were apologies all round and all that remains now is to see what punishment, in addition to a three-match ban, the Football Association might mete out against Hazard.
Yet surely the incident poses a broader question about the whole point of employing ballboys if their presence cannot guarantee that time wasted retrieving the ball will be reduced to a minimum. Most of the half-pints who do the job are admirably diligent but reports that Wednesday's victim, one Charlie Morgan, a young-looking 17‑year‑old, had tweeted in advance that if necessary he was going to waste time on Swansea's behalf did not suggest that impartiality is among their principal attributes.
Almost invariably ballboys are fans of the home teams. Otherwise they would not be there. But Glenn Hoddle's comments on Sky after the game at the Liberty Stadium implied that on occasions there was something more sinister going on.
According to Hoddle there was a widespread understanding between teams and their ballboys that if they were hanging on to a lead then time taken to return the ball would increase proportionately. He cited an earlier instance in Wednesday's match when the ball was rolled so slowly towards the Swansea goalkeeper for a goal-kick that Gerhard Tremmel had to meet it halfway. This may have been a mere coincidence. Perhaps the ballboy was getting tired. But it is surely something the authorities should be looking at.
Way back in the 70s stories were circulating that Chelsea's players had just such an arrangement with their ballboys. Remember that in those days Stamford Bridge was a large bowl, which had accommodated a greyhound track, and even a swift chase to fetch the ball could consume more than a few precious seconds.
Ultimately, of course, the answer lies with the referees who can increase the amount of stoppage time to make up for minutes that have been lost either inadvertently or deliberately. But there are limits. Players, managers and spectators will be sympathetic when a game is extended by up to 10 minutes or more because of long stoppages to treat seriously injured players but imagine the furore if a ref went this far for what he considered to be time wasted by one side or the other.
Meanwhile the Premier and Football Leagues could do worse than produce a code of conduct for ballboys and order clubs to make sure it is observed. The alternative is to ban ballboys altogether and introduce tougher penalties for time-wasting by players.
It is not as if the practice necessarily benefits the offending team. Sergio Agüero's championship-winning goal for Manchester City in the final seconds of last season would not have been scored but for the time it took for Queens Park Rangers' Joey Barton to be sent off. All right, Barton was not clock-watching, but the effect was the same.
Towards the end of that match City's players were retrieving the ball so quickly the ballboys practically became redundant.