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Friday, June 21, 2024

This team thought they were close to breaking a world record. It turns out, penalties don’t count

The world record for most consecutive wins by a football team in all competitions was set by Welsh team The New Saints (TNS) in December 2016 when they beat Cefn Druids 2-0.

This week excitement grew when TNS, who usually play in front of just a few hundred fans at Park Hall stadium across the border in Oswestry in England, thought they could break their own record by beating Bala Town.

But this will not be the case.

Earlier this week the Football Association of Wales asked Guinness World Records if a penalty shootout win counts towards the “most consecutive association men’s football victories (all competitions)” record. Guinness World Records said yes, and the champagne orders were placed.

But a day later, the organisation retracted their previous answer and clarified that shootout wins do not in fact count — meaning TNS’s streak stands at 20, not 27, consecutive wins.

“We are naturally disappointed to learn that our 27-game winning streak apparently no longer qualifies as equalling the world record,” TNS said in a statement on Thursday.

“There’s been a bit of misunderstanding and confusion about the situation,” manager Craig Harrison told The Athletic. “What makes it a bit easier is that it’s the record that we already hold.”

The Ajax team of the early 1970s is considered one of the greatest teams of all time. Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Arie Haan pioneered “total football” as the Amsterdam-based team dominated Dutch and European football.

That team set one of football’s more durable records — they won 26 consecutive matches in all competitions in the 1971-72 season.

Many teams came close to beating it in the intervening years and, in November 2016, Scottish Lowland League side East Kilbride won 27 in a row.

Edwin van der Sar, who was marketing director of Ajax at the time and winner of multiple trophies as a player with the Dutch club as well as at Manchester United, sent a video message to the Scottish team along with 27 crates of beer.

However, the achievement was not recognised by Guinness World Records because the Lowland League is not a “top-level” competition.

Just a month later the Ajax record was definitively broken by TNS. (The club were known for a long time as ‘Total Network Solutions’, adopting the name of a local IT company that sponsored them. When the company was taken over by British Telecom in 2006, the club chose a new name which allowed them to retain the same acronym.) A draw in their following game meant the new record was set at 27 in a row.

TNS are the juggernauts of Welsh football, having won 15 titles in the last 23 seasons, never finishing below third in that period, a record helped by being one of the Cymru Premier’s two fully professional teams alongside Connah’s Quay Nomads. Four Welsh fully professional teams — Cardiff City, Swansea City, Wrexham and Newport County — play in the English Football League.

Seven years after breaking the record, TNS thought they were set to do it again at the Maes Tegid community playing field in Bala tonight.

But that run of 27 games includes a home tie which saw TNS knock out East Fife in the Scottish Challenge Cup, which some Welsh teams have participated in since the 2016-17 season.

The final score was 2-2 with TNS winning 5-4 in a shootout. Connor Roberts, who came through the Everton youth system, saved the crucial spot-kick.

Guinness World Records says this does not count, a situation TNS said it was “disappointed” about in an official statement.

“As far as we are concerned, a win is a win, and so we have secured 27 wins back-to-back — a fabulous achievement by Craig and the team, and one deserving of recognition.”

However, speaking to The Athletic, manager Harrison sounded sanguine about the ruling.

“I said that from the start I was very surprised, even after the game, because me, the staff, the players thought that wasn’t the case (that shootout success counts as a win),” he said. “We didn’t even think twice about it.”

He is keen not to dwell too much on the record and simply emphasises that his side are on an excellent run of form, unbeaten for 35 matches.

“It’s credit to the players, the standards that we’ve set, we’ve got a really strong squad,” he said. “We don’t want to sound too flippant but it’s been quite standard; we’ve not thought about (the record), it’s not been on anyone’s minds.”

Manager Harrison (The New Saints FC)

Only three wins in the sequence have been by one goal. They won one game 9-0 and another 8-0.

Harrison, who had spells at Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace as a player, is particularly proud of a 1-0 away win at Falkirk, a club that spent some time in the early 2000s in the Scottish Premier League, in the semi-finals of the Scottish Challenge Cup. TNS could win the trophy for the first time if they beat Airdrieonians on March 24.

So does winning on penalties count as a win or a draw? The answer is somewhat ambiguous.

The laws of the game are determined by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Law 10 covers “the outcome of a match,” and 10.2 defines the “winning team”.

“The team scoring the greater number of goals is the winner. If both teams score no goals or an equal number of goals, the match is drawn.”

So far, so straightforward.

The law then goes on to define the three valid ways “to determine the winning team” in the situation that “competition rules require a winning team after a drawn match or home-and-away tie”.

These are: the away goals rule, two equal periods of extra time not exceeding 15 minutes, and a penalty shootout.

A combination of these may be used. For example, extra-time followed by penalties. The TNS vs East Fife game went straight to penalties after 90 minutes.

The law says  “the match is drawn” if both teams score an equal number of goals. But it also says a penalty shootout win produces a “winning team”.

It’s not especially clear.

IFAB Technical Director David Elleray, a longstanding Premier League and FIFA referee, was asked about this by The Analyst in 2021 when the question was relevant to Manchester City, on a long winning streak which included a penalty shootout win (against Wolves in the League Cup).

Elleray came down on the side of draw rather than win, pointing out that the rules make clear that penalty shootouts are not “part of the match itself” and only used to “determine a ‘winning team’ where one is required”.

To strengthen his case, he pointed out Law 10.3 which notes that “a player who has been sent off during the match is not permitted to take part” and that “warnings and cautions issued to players and team officials during the match are not carried forward”.

This little-known rule means goalkeepers could exploit a loophole. If they have been booked, perhaps for time-wasting, they do not risk being sent off if they are booked again during the shoot-out.

So according to David Elleray a penalty shootout victory does not count as a win, the same position belatedly taken by Guinness World Records, although the letter of the law is not completely clear on the matter.

Perhaps TNS are on a “winning run” but not a “match-winning run”.

Harrison says he often receives messages when teams come close to breaking the TNS record, like Manchester City did a few years ago when their 21-game winning streak ending as they lost 2-0 at home to rivals Manchester United.

“We’re not trying to compare ourselves to Ajax, with Cruyff — we’re being realistic,” he says. “But we’re very proud of it.”

Even if the penalty shootout win does not count, TNS have been unambiguously victorious for 20 consecutive games, so the club is not far off definitively breaking their own record of 27 in a row.

“Maybe in seven games time we might be having another conversation,” adds Harrison.

(Top photo: The New Saints FC)

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