ON THIS DAY: Liverpool had visited the Stadium of Light on October 17, 2009 in search of victory to get their season back on track, but Rafa Benitez’s side were undone by a cruel twist of fate
Having managed football teams in coastal cities such as Valencia, Tenerife and Naples, former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez would have probably seen his fair share of beach balls bouncing around in his lifetime.
But after a trip to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland some on October 17 some 12 years ago, the Spaniard could be forgiven for never wanting to see one for the rest of his days.
Of all the places you are likely to find a beach ball in the UK, the North East is unlikely to rank in the top 10. A football pitch is probably outside the top 100. But this is the Premier League, where even the most absurd things can happen.
There were numerous distractions going on off the pitch. Benitez had become embroiled in a fascinating statistical row with Man United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, while the club’s ownership problems under Tom Hicks and George Gillett rumbled on.
Soon enough, Benitez would find out just how high the odds were stacked against his side on it as well.
Steve Bruce’s side got off to the perfect start after just five minutes when a cross from the right found its way to Darren Bent at the far post.
The then-England international took one touch to step himself and fired a low, drilled effort into the crowd of players. But instead of taking a nick off a defender, it collided with an object, which was later revealed to be a beach ball thrown onto the pitch by a young fan.
That completed changed the trajectory of the match ball, leaving Pepe Reina confused and flat-footed, as the ball rolled into the bottom corner.
There were protests, with some people on the Liverpool bench suggesting it should have been a drop ball. But referee Mike Jones allowed the goal to stand, much to the incredulity of the visitors.
Bent celebrated in front of the jubilant home supporters as technically it was his goal. But if the touch had come from an active player, it would have been their goal. Regardless, the beach ball had done its job.
Benitez was surprisingly restrained in his post-match analysis, looking somewhat subdued by the events that had played out in front of him.
“We had bad luck with the goal, but the team were not doing well so that is something we have to fix,” he said after the game.
“The other things you cannot control. I couldn’t see what had happened. We were asking and they told us but you cannot change things.”
But it would be wrong to suggest that the placement of a rogue plastic sphere was the sole reason behind Sunderland’s victory. Craig Gordon made two wonderful stops late on to deny Dirk Kuyt and David N’Gog to protect all three points.
Ultimately, it was Bent who took the limelight and, when quizzed about the famous goal more recently, the striker could not hide his amusement at the incident.
“I’ve seen the goal played back I don’t know how many times now and you look at the reactions on different peoples’ faces,” Bent told Sky Sports in 2019.
“Pepe Reina’s face, Glen Johnson’s face, Jamie Carragher’s face… everyone is like ‘what’s happened here?!’”
On the 10th anniversary of the incident, Carragher finally addressed his feelings on the events on that day in Sunderland.
“It’s mad when you actually think about it,” he told The Athletic.
“I never lost a game of football in stranger circumstances. I mean, what the hell was it even doing there? Who takes a beach ball to the north-east in the middle of October?
“It was just surreal. I don’t remember being that angry about it because I couldn’t really work out what had happened. I knew it was something weird but I didn’t know quite what.”
The mischievous beach ball, which has earned its place in Premier League history, has retired from duty and is now displayed in the National Football Museum in Manchester.
“It was a freak accident but it was a nice goal to score,” Bent said.
“I finished with 106 Premier League goals — although some people say 105! But it’s a weird bit of history that I’m proud to be a part of.”
After the game, Liverpool found themselves down in eighth and seven points behind Benitez. Without Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres, it felt that their title challenge had gone to pop… like a beach ball.
But in its own way, it eventually led to Benitez leaving the club in May 2010 after six years in charge. Which then saw Roy Hodgson, Brendan Rodgers and finally, Jurgen Klopp take their respective turns in the dugout.
Now, 12 years down the line, things look very different for both clubs. Liverpool went on to finally win the Premier League in 2019-20 and are one of Europe’s top sides, while Sunderland are now hoping to gain promotion from League One this season after four years outside of the top flight.
Just like swings and roundabouts, the karmic justice seems to have rolled around the beach ball and back into Liverpool’s possession — now they are the ones laughing.