Inside the mind of a ball boy: Swansea lad wasn't doing it right… and I should know, it was my job at Arsenal for a season
10:42 GMT, 24 January 2013
11:40 GMT, 24 January 2013
'It is a fact,' Glenn Hoddle proclaimed. 'You will tell people who are instructing ball boys that if you're winning the game, don't get the ball back quickly.'
Well, sorry to disappoint you, Glenn. But that's not the case – fact.
I spent one season marshalling the Clock End for Arsenal Football Club and never was I ordered or told to influence play. We were simply under instruction to retrieve the ball and get it back on the pitch as soon as humanly possible.
There were no towels, no multi-ball system – other than games in the Champions League where this was compulsory – and certainly no instruction to treat one team differently from another.
On the ball: That's me on the left celebrating a Robert Pires strike against Charlton in the 2002-03 season
Hoddle, speaking as a pundit on Sky Sports after last night's stunning events, also suggested that all home teams use the multi-ball system to their advantage on European nights.
Not in my experience. The message was clear: 'European officials are watching tonight, and they want you to retrieve and return the ball as quickly as you can. Don't mess it up.' As a 14-year-old representing Arsenal Football Club, I made sure I didn't.
What Eden Hazard did last night was wrong. He shouldn't have kicked out. But the self-proclaimed 'king of ball boys' Charlie Morgan hardly covered himself in glory either.
Before the game he hinted at
deliberately slowing down play under the hashtag 'timewasting'. As such,
there can be little sympathy.
Kick it out: Eden Hazard is sent off (below) after striking ball boy Charlie Morgan in last night's semi-final clash
Social media hadn't been invented during my stint as a ball boy back in 2002. A 'hash' was a term which went before a figure, or used to determine the kind of telephone you were using during an automated call. But even in this era obsessed with Twitter and Facebook, I'd still be surprised if you found a current Arsenal ball boy gloating about his or her role. From the boardroom to the ball boys, the same strict rules apply to any employee of the north London club.
The act of a ball boy may seem like a menial task to most but we were under clear instruction to do our job professionally and properly. I wasn't paid but that wasn't the point. Watching Arsenal from the front row of the Clock End was payment in itself. We actually used to win things back then.
Wearing the Arsenal tracksuit, taking my designated seat for every game of the 2002-03 season – I was given the section nearest the away fans as I was one among the eldest of the group – and walking on to the hallowed Highbury turf to wave the Champions League flag on European nights are memories I will always cherish. As a defender who didn't like tackling or heading (and still doesn't) I knew this was the closest I'd get to playing for my childhood team. It was an honour.
Take your seat: Fans at White Hart Lane share a joke with a ball boy
Twenty of us between the ages of 12 and 16 were trialled and picked for one season, and one season only. There were clear rules. Don't celebrate an Arsenal goal (although, I must confess to ignoring that one). Don't kick the ball, or use your feet. And don't enter the field of play to retrieve the ball.
I remember one instance when Peter Schmeichel, who was playing for Manchester City, berated one of my colleagues for refusing to go on to the pitch to return the ball to him. He was simply obeying instructions. The Clock End responded by chanting 'ball boy give us a wave'. He did.
Speaking this morning, Pat Nevin, a former Chelsea player said, like Hazard, he too would have kicked the ball boy. And I'd have to agree. By smothering the ball, and then appearing to feign injury, the 17-year-old let himself down, he let Swansea down, and he called into question the integrity of ball boys across the country.
Nevin then suggested that ball boys should be banned. Nonsense. Retrieve the ball. Throw it back. Assume your position. Job done. Just do it the right way, the Arsenal way.