Refs, Red Cards And Replays

It was a clear red.

it was never a red.

He could have broken his opponent’s leg.

He never touched him.

The studs were up.

The studs were down.

He was out of control.

He was pushed.

He had both feet off the ground.

He had both feet on the ground when he made the tackle.

It was a dangerous tackle.

He got the ball.

The ref was wrong not to send Rojo off for what looked like a two footed tackle.

The ref was wrong to send Vardy off for what didn’t look like a two footed tackle.

It’s ironic that football referees are constantly condemned for making wrong decisions that, even in hindsight, with the benefit of countless replays, the fans and pundits cannot agree on.

After yet another weekend of controversial decisions, from Jamie Vardy’s sending off for a two footed tackle by the same referee who didn’t send off Marcos Rojo on Wednesday for a two footed tackle, to two offsides in both of City’s goals against Arsenal, to Spurs’ Sissoko escaping a red card for a high tackle and going on to set up the winning goal, football officiating never seems to be off the back pages.

Ironically, video replays were used in competition for the first time last week at the Club World Cup, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino declaring the results “extremely positive”.  But if anyone thinks video replays are a panacea for football, they will be sorely disappointed.  Unfortunately for the sport, the majority of decisions in football are not clear-cut.  They are not about whether a ball is on the line or not, in line or moving away, or if a ball is caught or not.  Footballing decisions require interpretation of the rules and depend on individual judgment from the referee on the day.  Even with the benefit of video replays, a different referee could easy come to a different conclusion.

Of course, if the technology is available, it should be used, even if simply to clarify a decision.  But it’s not the whole answer and it never can be.  Controversy will always reign in football; which side of the fence you sit on will invariably depend on which team you support.  It is the joy and the frustration of football.  It is what makes football so eminently watchable.  Football is like an endless sporting soap opera.  An argument without end.  And, in truth, football fans wouldn’t have it otherwise.



United Boo-Boys Mar Much Needed Victory At Old Trafford

The panto season was in full swing judging by the amount of booing that was reverberating around Old Trafford on Sunday.  Whilst Manchester United were doing their usual routine of going 1-0 up and hanging on for dear life against Tottenham, their fans were getting into the Christmas spirit by exercising their vocal chords for the annual panto visit.  Initially, it was Spurs’ feisty full back Danny Rose who bore the brunt of their opprobrium with a cynical tackle on United’s exciting goal scorer Henrikh Mikhitaryan 10 minutes from the end.  Rose’s role as pantomime villain was understandable as his clumsy tackle looked to have seriously injured the best player on the pitch, who, worryingly, had to be carried off on a stretcher.

Less palatable was when a small minority of United fans started booing their own player, Marouane Fellaini, first as he was warming up, and later when he came on as substitute in the 97th minute.  The hapless Belgian is not currently in the United fans’ good books (not that he has ever been in their good books any other time) ever since he clumsily gave away a last-minute penalty in United’s previous league match against Everton, costing them a valuable win.  But booing a player simply because he’s not very good seems hardly fair.  It’s not his fault if the manager keeps playing him.

Some people have attempted to defend the fans’ disparaging behaviour, arguing that since fans pay the players’ wages with their money by buying season tickets and match tickets, they are entitled to vent their ire on their players as they choose.  This is an entirely fallacious argument because aside from the fact that it is the TV and commercial deals that fund the players’ inflated salaries, being paying fans does not entitle them to act like boors and bullies.  They have a right to be disgruntled, but singling out one player for abuse is classless.

Turning on their own players is not only disloyal, it’s frankly stupid in being counter-productive.  What exactly do the mockers think their vilification of their own player is likely to achieve?  It’s hardly going to help the player’s confidence, is it?  They are not going to play better if they are abused.  They are more likely to make mistakes if they feel their own fans are getting on their back.  How ironically futile to boo a player because he makes mistakes in the hope that he will improve!

Worse, it reinforces the endlessly regurgitated ABU myth of all United fans being classless prawn sandwich munching glory hunters.  United players get enough grief from opposition club fans and the media without their own fans turning on them.  Note the ceaseless disgraceful treatment of United players over the years by England fans, inflamed by a sensationalist media, from chanting ‘stand up if you hate Man U’ at Wembley, to burning effigies of David Beckham after his sending off in the 1998 World Cup, to the recent pillorying of Wayne Rooney for daring to enjoy himself at a fan’s wedding reception the night after an England game.  It was interesting how the rest of the squad going into town clubbing and enjoying themselves at insalubrious lap dancing clubs didn’t get a mention in the press.  They weren’t United players so clearly no one cared.  United fans should be countering this constant demonising of their players by being doubly protective and supportive of them – as Fergie was in the old days and Mourinho was on Sunday by dedicating the Spurs win to Fellaini.  The fans shouldn’t be doing the ABUs’ job for them.  They should reserve their rancour for fan message boards, website comment pages and radio phone ins.

The United fans need to maintain a united front irrespective of their own personal feelings, particularly at a time when the club is going through a difficult period.  That’s when a club needs its fans to be loyal.  Not when they are winning trophy after trophy and basking in the plaudits of the footballing world, but when they are struggling to match up to former glories and everyone has gleefully consigned them to the dustbin of has-beens.

So the message from this United fan to the United boo-boys is: when in the stadium support your own and reserve your booing for cynical foulers like Danny Rose and rival players and rival teams.  Only then can you claim to be a proper United fan.  Not with a season ticket book in your pocket, but through absolute loyalty to the team on match day.



United Keep Drawing The Short Straw

If they gave out trophies in football for the most varied ways to draw matches, Jose Mourinho would already have won his first silverware for Manchester United.  No one has mastered the art of the draw quite as well as the current United team.  No matter what they do, no matter how they play, whether it’s home or away, top team or lower end strugglers, this United team will find a way to extract a draw.  They have played park the bus football (Liverpool); storm the Bastille football (Burnley, Stoke and West Ham); counter-attack football (Arsenal); more possession but low creativity football (Everton), and each time the outcome is the same.  A draw.

United’s latest draw against Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday was the 6th in their last 8 League games.  It doesn’t help that the team have acquired an unfortunate proclivity for conceding late goals.  Against Everton, they gave away a clumsy penalty in the 89th minute to throw away three points.  There used to be a time when it was United who were scoring last gasp goals and breaking opposition hearts.  This season, they have already dropped seven valuable points through goals conceded in the last 10 minutes.  When you are struggling to live up to past glories, every point counts, and every point dropped is an ideal excuse for United’s detractors to declare a state of emergency.

It is easy to consider Chelsea’s implosion under Mourinho last year, their current top-of-the-table resurgence under Antonio Conte, along with United’s inability to win matches, and consign Mourinho as a has-been well past his sell-by date.  But what should be heeded is that United are team on the decline after having enjoyed a prolonged period of success.  Had Antonio Conte been appointed United’s manager, who is to say he wouldn’t have struggled as well.   If it was easy to maintain success indefinitely why haven’t the Scousers won a league title for 27 years?  Jose Mourinho’s task at Old Trafford is a monumental one.  He is attempting to fight the tide of history.  Rebuilding an empire takes time.  Even Fergie took a whole 7 years to win his first league title.  Mourinho will be lucky to get 7 months.

The media and opposition fans want Jose Mourinho to fail because that means United will have failed.  After 23 years of unrelenting glory, this is revenge time for the long-suffering ABUs (aka Anyone but United), who are wilfully twisting early season teething issues into a crisis of relegation proportions.  In truth, Mourinho’s United are not doing that badly.  They are presently in 6th place with the season barely into December.  They are one place off where they finished last season under Louis Van Gaal.  They are in the semi finals of the League Cup and on the brink of qualifying for the last 32 of the Europa League.  Their football, irrespective of the outcome, is far more enticing and creative than anything played under Van Gaal or Moyes.  With a bit more luck in front of goal and a smidgen more grit in their defending, those frustrating draws could easily have become wins.

Given time, there is no reason why those draws cannot turn into wins in the future.  So long as the team keep creating chances, things will eventually click into place and the chances will start to go in.  United are traditionally stronger in the second half of the season, when results really start to matter.  United need to stay calm and most importantly, they need Jose to control his temper.  United’s cause is not helped by Mourinho’s permanently volatile state.  Leaving aside tax avoidance allegations, his constant petulant antics are giving the media and opposition fans far too much ammunition with which to attack the club.  Publicly criticising players, slagging off refs, kicking over bottles and getting sent off serves only to generate negative headlines and reinforce public perception that Mourinho has long since lost the plot.  At at time when United desperately need stability Mourinho’s combustible behaviour simply reaffirms the view that United made a fatal mistake in employing him.  Far from being United’s saviour he always appears one incident away from becoming their biggest liability.

The club cannot lose yet another manager.  United need Mourinho to keep his counsel and his dignity if he is to succeed, for the sake of the club and for his own redemption.  Likewise, United fans need to stay strong and support their manager, no matter what their personal opinions of him.  The club is bigger than any manager, any title and any fan feeling.  MUFC needs a manager to stick around.  It will, of course, help if Mourinho can win the League Cup (or EFL or whatever it’s called these days), even if it is a mickey mouse trophy.  Silverware is silverware, and at the very least it should buy Jose time.  As we know, time is a precious and much-needed commodity in football.


Long Road Back To The Top For United

They had 37 attempts on goal, 72% possession, 19 corners, they hit the post, they hit the bar, but still Manchester United couldn’t break through the rock hard defence of Burnley at Old Trafford on Saturday.  It was a similar story to their last home match against Stoke a month ago, where for all their huffing and puffing they could only manage a 1-1 draw.  Two matches, 61 shots at goal, a grand total of one goal scored.  When your luck’s out, it’s out.  Just ask Lewis Hamilton.

No doubt the ABUs are wallowing gleefully in Schadenfreude at United’s latest misfortune.  Cue echoes of ‘I told you so’ at the appointment of Jose Mourinho after his latest attention grabbing antics saw him ignominiously sent to the stands for protesting too much at Darmian’s probably correctly denied penalty appeal in the first half.  No one is better at diverting attention away from the team than Mourinho, but whether that is a good thing, even when the team are struggling and could perhaps do with having attention diverted away from them, is debatable.  However, United are stuck with him for better, for worse.  Changing managers yet again would only serve to destabilise the club further.

It is not mercurial managers nor mediocre players who are the real problem.  History is against Manchester United.  The previous two teams to dominate English football before Fergie’s United both suffered a precipitous decline in their league fortunes in the aftermath.  Matt Busby’s Manchester United reigned supreme in the 50s and 60s, but after Busby’s retirement it would take United 26 years to win the league title again.  Likewise, Liverpool ruled the roost from the late 60s up to 1990, but they have not won the league title since.  26 years and counting.  A long period of league domination followed by an equally prolonged decline is the inevitable trajectory of the supremely successful team.  The pride and the fall.

So United’s current decline was inevitable.  The media may obsess and the opposition fans taunt, but United fans will need to be patient and take it all on the chin.  The glory days will be back, but the wheel of fortune may take a while to turn again.  Just so long as it doesn’t take 26 years…

United Show City How It’s Done

There aren’t too many things Manchester United are better at than their City rivals right now, but taking penalties seems to be one of them.  While City missed two penalties against Everton last Saturday, United showed them how should be done last night by scoring two penalties in their 4-1 Europa League win over Fenerbahce at Old Trafford.

United’s four goals also came the day after City conceded four goals – albeit in the Champions League to the mighty Barcelona and a wonderful hat-trick from irrepressible genius Messi – a reversal for United fans to enjoy, no matter how momentary.

After a nondescript opening half an hour, the game sparked to life when United were awarded two penalties in just three minutes after some clumsy defending from Fenerbahce.  Interestingly, United’s regular penalty taker, Wayne Rooney, allowed Paul Pogba to take the first and Anthony Martial the second.  It was a surprisingly magnanimous gesture from the beleaguered United skipper, who desperately needs goals, not only to silence his ever growing critics, but also because he is only three goals behind Bobby Charlton’s all time United goalscoring record.

Ironically, it was against Fenerbahce in the Champions League 12 years ago that a precocious 18 year old Rooney made a spectacular debut for United, scoring a dazzling hat trick that provided a thrilling glimpse of his gilded future.  If the present Rooney is a shadow of that effortless goal-scoring past self, he is still proving pivotal to United’s fortunes.  Perhaps he gave the penalties to Pogba and Martial to help them gain some much needed goal scoring confidence themselves.  Rooney’s generosity certainly paid off when Pogba scored a stunning third goal from 20 yards after a triangle of short passes involving Rooney and Jesse Lingard, who laid the ball off to Pogba.  An identical move involving the triumvirate at the start of the second half saw Pogba pass to Rooney on the edge of the box, who laid it off for Lingard this time.  His sweet strike gave United their fourth goal and three valuable points to take them second in the group.  The dancing goal celebrations between Pogba and Lingard – United’s most expensive buy and the one who cost them nothing –  were as memorable as the goals themselves.  Perhaps they were auditioning for an invite to Strictly Come Dancing!

It was a night for trips down memory lane.  The biggest cheer of the match was reserved for Fenerbahce’s late consolation goal, scored by United old boy Robin Van Persie.  It was a trademark tap in reminiscent of the good old days.  They don’t forget their own at Old Trafford.  It was thanks to Van Persie’s 30 goals that United won their last Premier League title back in 2013 in Fergie’s swansong year.  The United fans were loud and generous in their acclaim for their former hero.  What would they give for a 30 goals a season striker right now?

As it is, at least they get to enjoy a better week than City.  Which is saying something in a week that began with a dour 0-0 away trip to Anfield.  It will end with a kind of homecoming for Jose Mourinho, when United travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.  United fans will be hoping that’s another trip down memory lane which ends with a victory for their team.

Points Over Performance for United

If ever Manchester United were going to lose a match this would have been the week to do it.  With the fallout from the Allardyce sacking saga reverberating through the football world, even Manchester United’s troubles would have taken second place to an English football corruption scandal.  So of course, United didn’t.

It wasn’t a particularly convincing victory against Zorya Luhansk in Thursday’s Europa League group game at Old Trafford.  But it didn’t need to be.  United just needed to win to avoid the possibility of a humiliating group stage exit in a competition they patently don’t give a toss about.  Which they they did – unconvincingly.

But even unconvincing United victories don’t come without accompanying dramas of soap opera proportions.  After endless debate, Mourinho had finally left Wayne Rooney out of the team last Saturday and was seemingly vindicated when United went on to record a comprehensive 4-1 victory over the reigning champions Leicester (yep, still sounds weird).  The team started without Rooney once more agasint Zorya, but with the score still 0-0, Mourinho brought him on in the 67th minute.  You can probably guess the rest.  Within seconds he had helped United to take the lead – in rather bizarre circumstances.  Young right-back Timothy Fosu-Mensah made a run down the wing before cutting back to Rooney, who scuffed his volley straight into the ground at the very moment the Zorya goalkeeper Oleksii Shevchenko lost his footing and fell.  Rooney’s mis-hit bounced straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the left post, who held off the defender and headed the ball into the unguarded net.  One goal for United, one assist for Wayne Rooney, three points for United, more endless debating about Rooney.

After three defeats on the trot, United have now won three in a row.  Winning is a habit and sometimes it’s better to keep winning badly than lose playing well.  Obviously in an ideal world United would play amazingly and collect silverware at will.  But the glory, glory days of Fergie and his exuberant, fleet footed fledglings are long gone.  Also gone are the days when managers had time to bed in.  Mourinho needs to keep accumulating the points and hope that the performances start coming with the confidence of winning.

United Turn A Corner Or Three

Correlation does not always imply causation.  Manchester United dropped Wayne Rooney for the visit of Premier League champions Leicester on Saturday and went on to thump them 4-1.  A clear case of cause and effect, or were Leicester simply terrible at defending for one awful 20 minute spell in the first half?  After all, this is the third time this season that Leicester have conceded four goals in a match.

The Rooney critics will rightly point to the increased fluidity, pace and movement in the team; the quicker interchange of passes; the increased space for Mata’s creativity to flourish; Pogba’s dominance in the first half, and Daley Blind’s deadly dead ball delivery.  Amazingly, three of United’s four goals came from corners.  United never score from corners, but then Rooney is the designated set piece taker.  In that respect, the belated change to Blind could not have come sooner!

However, perhaps even more significant was the decision to jettison the limited Marouane Fellaini and play Ander Herrera alongside Pogba in the deep lying Carrick role.  It freed Pogba to play much further forward, in a roaming role, that saw him hit a dipping 35 yard shot that was saved, contribute to Mata’s goal, score himself with a brilliant header, and play a delightful dink to Zlatan, whose swivelled volley over the bar would have been a top contender for goal of the season had it flown into the back of the net.  Of course, it’s the least United can expect for £89 million, but it was a timely reminder of why United forked out such a huge sum for the young Frenchman they offloaded for £88 million less four years ago.

One swallow does not a summer make though.  If correlation is to prove causation United will have to keep playing well without Rooney – or keep playing badly with him.  United play again on Thursday evening, at Old Trafford in the Europa League, and it is believed Rooney will start.  What happens if United play well and win?  How Jose Mourinho deals with solving the problem that is Wayne Rooney may well determine the success or failure of his tenure at Manchester United.