• Richard Hill

The pie, the goalkeeper and the lapse of judgement: OR how we set the conditions for failure

Every so often we get an ‘in real life’ occurrence which gives us a perfect chance to illustrate concepts about how the world around us operates and can operate better. In 2017 there was one which captured the full narrative range: heroes, villains, giant-killers, fools and the chance to fight authority.

The romance of the FA cup is writ large. Non-league side Sutton United FC had been roaming through the competition, defeating better paid, better ranked and more professionalised teams, reaching the fifth round where they took on the mighty Arsenal – champions, league winners and historical giants of football.

Non-sports fans need not look away now – this article is not about sports. Instead it is about what happened on the touchline. In the 82nd minute the reserve goalkeeper ate a pie and triggered one of the most visible sports betting scandals to hit the UK headlines in recent times.

For those of you who have just had to re-read that last sentence certain that you must have read it wrong, here’s a bit of context. Wayne Shaw (the goalkeeper in question) had attracted media attention as a character – non-league sides on cup runs give a chance to prick the bubble of superstar football teams and build a ‘just-like-us’ story that fits the David and Goliath narrative. Physically Shaw also created an opportunity for a story to be built, due to who he was (basically he looks like the rest of us, and not a model footballer) and the age old football chant of ‘who ate all the pies’. The story was one too golden to be passed up by the press.

This led to a gambling company publicising the odds on him eating a pie live on TV during the match – undoubtedly a cynical marketing move, and given the publicity they have gained, one that worked.

Not unexpectedly, he ate the pie.

Goalkeeper eating pie
He ate the pie...

Cue a storm of articles, tweets and comments. On the one side the Football Association and the Gambling Commission suggested that an investigation would be opened into gambling offences (fixing the outcome of a bet made on a sporting event) while commentators and fans claimed he was an idiot and everyone could just do with being more professional and condemned poor judgement and the ‘stunt’; on the other side where those who claimed the game has lost its sense of fun, and it was just a bit of banter.

In the wake of all the noise he resigned from the team and his job at the club as caretaker, community liaison and coach.

Both sides have missed the point.

Wayne Shaw was doomed to fail regardless of what he did. As soon as the conditions were set by an external force over which he had no influence or knowledge there was no way out for him.

The betting firm judged it appropriate to set the bet and heavily publicise it, in a way that made it impossible for Shaw to have no knowledge of it – once this was done Shaw had two choices: eat the pie or don’t eat the pie. Whatever choice he made he was open to accusations of fixing – legally it seems to not matter if he had any personal gain from whichever way the bet went, it is enough to make a choice which determines that a particular outcome happens, thereby helping someone, anyone make a gain.

How frequently do we set individuals, teams and divisions up for failure in our own organisations?

You have to grow revenue but you’re not getting the marketing budget to drive growth. You need to deliver more, but we’re taking away half your team. You have to make ethical decisions but you can’t lose any business.

These may feel like rational strategic choices, but how often do we think of the position of those who are to deliver these paradoxes we demand as leaders. We demand one thing, and when this is delivered we come down hard on the failure to deliver the other. How little space does it create for others to make a judgement when we have already boxed them into a corner?

Wayne Shaw was trapped by an objectively unfair set of conditions – every aspect of the context of this story has a rational choice behind it but the question is what happens when the whole is much less than the sum of its parts? Do we hang out to dry the individuals who try and fail to navigate the contradictions we set for them, or do we support them and say, ‘we got this wrong, not you’.