Going into Sunday’s massive top-of-the-table clash with the red hot Chelsea Blues, I was apprehensive verging on being defeatist in my attitude. It was a game United could ill afford to lose, or they would find themselves a significant 7 points behind their London rivals, not to mention allowing their noisy neighbours to pull further clear as well. I was informed through numerous media sources that it had been ten years since a Manchester United victory at Stamford Bridge. As if that wasn’t enough this was the best start Chelsea have had to a season since that detestable side of the Mourinho era, and they have been playing scintillating football from match day one of this season.
Needless to say I was delighted when the defiant Red Devils managed to capture those so-often elusive three points at ‘the Bridge’. I always feel so ecstatic when my side win these huge clashes of the big boys, but at these times I try to prevent myself from becoming too insufferable by remembering just how painful it can feel to be to be on the receiving end of a crushing defeat. You always reap what you sow when it comes to playground style football gloating – a harsh lesson I learned many years ago. A low to match this high is always just around the corner.
With this in mind I strode confidently into work the next day to be greeted by my consistently infuriating Chelsea supporting colleague. He has not yet learned this code of conduct for a mature football fan, and is always the first to rub salt in a fresh wound at his earliest opportunity. It took all of my self-restraint to keep myself from running over to him, and performing a medley of famous football goal celebrations deep within his personal space with all the gusto I could muster. I maintained my composure, and thought I would allow him to broach the topic of the result.
He opened his whiny mouth and I braced myself for an admission that his side had been bested in their own back yard by another good football team. I would then counter that both were good sides who had shown their class, and on another day the game could have gone the other way. That would allow us to move past the topic and we could converse like normal adults. Problem being, the conversation didn’t go as I have depicted. It didn’t go like that at all.
His opening words were “F*****g cheating ref lost us the match”. Now the referee was obviously a central character in the game, but I wasn’t going to let this Chelsea tosser away with that as an explanation. I stared at him intently without saying a word, hoping I might intimidate him and make him retract his statement. Then he said “Fergie paying off the ref again. An absolute joke!” Obviously I’ve heavily sanitised that statement to avoid causing any offence. Suffice to say this guy tosses out swear words like they are an acceptable pronoun or adverb. He once used four swear words in a sentence describing a new born baby. He really is your average Chelsea fan.
As Manchester United fans, I’m sure you have all seen the game. It was highly entertaining with a plethora of fantastic attacking players on both teams. Chelsea appeared to be in the ascendency and in truth looked like the side that would go on to win. Then a quality piece of play from a difference maker in the form of Robin Van Persie put the pacey Ashley Young through on goal past the last defender. This gave the referee, Mark Clattenberg, his first big decision of the game. Branislav Ivanovic ran across the back of Young, clipped his heal and brought him to the ground. Anyone who thinks that Ivanovic didn’t know what he was doing is giving him far too much credit. The method he employed in bringing Young down was cynical, and the only decision that could have been taken was to send him off.
From this moment, it was advantage United. That was the moment I firmly believed turned the tide, the referee’s decision was thankfully absolutely correct. The next major moment was the decision to send off Fernando Torres. I think any neutral would look upon that decision as being harsh. Jonny Evans lunged in wrecklessly, and regardless of what contact was made, probably deserved a yellow card himself. There is no question that Torres made the most of the very minimal contact, and to top it off he rolled around clutching his knee, despite any possible contact having very definitely occurred at ground level. However, he is far from the only player in the division to exaggerate contact, and it is hard to believe that Danny Welbeck or Ashley Young wouldn’t have reacted similarly if in the same position, given the unfortunate current climate in football theatrics. At least he was consistent and booked Antonio Valencia later on in similarly harsh circumstances. If the referee had only sent Torres off for his fly-kick into Tom Cleverley’s chest earlier in the game, then he wouldn’t have needed to send him off at this point. Somehow I still feel Chelsea fans might have claimed it was a case of ‘chest to boot’ in any case.
Then the game was won by an offside goal scored by the lively Javier Hernandez. This was poor officiating, but not Clattenberg’s fault. The linesman didn’t give it, and despite looking pretty damning on freeze frame, it was far from blatant. From then on, United closed the game out successfully. If the offside goal wasn’t awarded, I have no doubt that with the two man advantage they would have scored another.
In conclusion, the game was not lost because of the referee. In this instance, the referee is an excuse as opposed to a reason. The reaction of the Chelsea fans, throwing everything including their own seats on to the pitch, was a disgrace but unfortunately not a surprise. Their own team’s similar lack of discipline was decisive in the end.
Ultimately though, this was just one game. My team won, it didn’t bother me that my Chelsea colleague had a mouthful of sour grapes. What did bother me was his suggestion that referees are always biased towards Manchester United. Chelsea puppet / head coach Roberto Di Matteo had this nonsense to say: “It is a shame a game like this has had to be decided in that manner by officials. It always seems to be in favour of the opposition”. This view is seemingly raised every time United get a penalty or a reasonable amount of injury time. This view is not just wrong, it is ignorant. It is fair to say United had the rub of the green on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, although I believe the result was down to the players, not the officials. But to suggest that Chelsea never get help from the officials in corresponding fixtures from previous seasons is laughable!
How do I know this? At the risk of sounding like Liverpool’s former Chief spin doctor Rafa Benitez: FACTS.
FACT. Sunday 28th April 2008 – Chelsea beat United at Stamford Bridge due to a penalty awarded for the ball striking Michael Carrick’s arm just inside the box. His arm was by his side, it didn’t move, and the 85th minute Michael Ballack penalty decided the game. Never a penalty in a month of Sundays.
FACT. Sunday 8th November 2009 – Chelsea beat United at Stamford Bridge due to a John Terry goal from a free kick set piece. The free kick was awarded incorrectly after Darren Fletcher had fairly tackled Ashley Cole. Didier Drogba was yards offside when he prevented Van Der Saar saving the header. Chelsea win the game 1-0.
FACT. Wednesday 1st March 2011 – Chelsea beat United at Stamford Bridge due to an award of an 80th minute penalty when Yuri Zhirkov went down in the box following minimal contact from Chris Smalling. David Luiz escapes a second yellow after a wild lunge on Wayne Rooney. Nemanja Vidic sent off later for a similar challenge. Chelsea win 2-1.
FACT. Wednesday 31st October 2012 – Chelsea beat United in the League Cup (I’m refusing to call it anything else) at Stamford Bridge just three days after being ‘robbed’ by the officials in the league game. They are awarded two penalties in an eventual 5-4 win, including an equaliser from the spot after the allocated 3 minutes of injury time had been played. No complaints, they were penalties, but certainly no favours done to the United youth team. An immediate return to type.
I could go on and cite other examples of Sir Alex’s team being hard done by, but you get the point. The English public and media are intent on perpetuating this myth that Manchester United always have the 12th man in these big games. It is a running joke about Howard Webb being on Fergie’s wage bill. Liverpool joker Ryan ‘first touch’ Babel got in trouble after a run of the mill Liverpool defeat at Old Trafford for tweeting an image of Webb in a Man United shirt. Webb’s crime? Sending off that lovely Steven Gerrard for a wild two footed lunge; a Stevie G special.
There are a few separate debates that enter into this argument. The standard of refereeing can be undeniably poor in the English Premier league, and decisions are quite frequently incorrect. The difference being that if any of these decisions happen to fall in favour of the Manchester Reds, there is a national outcry that ‘bloody Fergie has paid another one off’. Social media explodes with a deluge of mocked up pictures of Sir Alex having a laugh with his new referee employees, and with expletive-ridden status updates from semi-literate football Neanderthals wanting a referee’s head on a spike. If Roberto Di Matteo wants a good example of receiving the benefit of a referee’s incompetence, he should check out his own side’s good fortune against Wigan at Stamford Bridge last season. I’d like to see him play the victim after watching that calamity.
Why doesn’t it compute with certain opposition fans that, having been battling it out at the top end of the division for over 20 years now, sometimes Manchester United players get fouled in the box? That sometimes teams resort to kicking United players because they are good? That sometimes scoring all those late goals is not down to luck and bad officiating, but rather determination and a winning mentality? Or that sometimes managers other than Sir Alex Ferguson berate officials and point at their watch? (I wouldn’t want him to be any other way!)
Over many years of watching United, I can honestly say that just as many dodgy decisions have gone against them as for them. There is no bias, simply some incorrect decisions. Decisions of the sort that have dearly cost them at Stamford Bridge over the years. If United get a few more penalties than a team battling relegation, then even your average football fan can surely work out it may have something to do with dominating teams and frequently attacking the opposition’s area?
However, on a concluding note, maybe we should be glad there is this myth about referee bias. I don’t want to be that smug annoying fan I was talking about earlier, but complaining Sir Alex always gets the decisions from the ref comes from many years of pent up frustration and jealousy from rival fans, and that means there must still be plenty for them to be jealous about. So upon reflection, long may the allegations continue!