With moments to go Bryan Ruiz slipped Danny Murphy through, Michael Carrick tripped him and Michael Oliver didn’t give a penalty. It was the wrong decision but I can understand it: in the last moments of a crucial game that would have a bearing on the league championship’s final destination, at Old Trafford, against Manchester United (in front of Sir Alex Ferguson)… Oliver won’t have had to make many bigger decisions.
Chances are he’s replayed the incident a thousand or more times in his head since then. He’ll have seen Murphy scamper off and Carrick cut across and then in what must now seem like a horrible blur of red and white, Murphy was on the deck and Carrick was panicking. A quick summing up of the situation, and no, no penalty.
It wasn’t a certain penalty. There was enough doubt that Oliver could duck the intervention, doubt that trapped him into missing one of those career defining decisions that would have marked him out as a good and brave and unintimidated referee. Now everyone thinks he’s a bottler.
Thing is, this is partly the game’s fault. In cricket the best batsmen used to get away with lbw shouts through sheer force of personality. “Going down leg” the umpire would mutter, and everyone knew that it probably wasn’t but everyone knew that such is the game. Meanwhile you cowering number 11 would get the finger the first time the ball hit him on the pad. Technology has exposed this flaw and now, in test matches at least, decision making is better and fairer. Baseball was even worse, with good pitchers and good batters getting preferential treatment of called balls and strikers until technology again levelled the playing field.
So it is with football. Everyone knows that home teams and big teams get the decisions and everyone knows that human nature almost dictates that this be so: all of us, when put under extreme pressure, will occasionally crack or make a decision that is not necessarily the best available.
So Oliver waved play on and United won 1-0 and that’s three defeats in a row.
Never mind, I don’t suppose. We look quite good and assuming nothing strange happens between now and the end of the season we are still comfortably in mid table and should look forward to an interesting 2012-13 season. Which is what Martin Jol seems to be doing, too, giving Kerim Frei another go on the wing, resting Danny Murphy until late on, and experimenting with Dempsey in a central role.
None of those decisions was a roaring success but in a game you’re going to lose 90% of the time, why not make a few changes? Frei was largely anonymous but spending time on the pitch in an important match will have helped his development; Diarra played alright, and Murphy’s introduction late on gave us a surge of purpose that almost translated into that point. So it’s hard to argue with what Jol tried to do. Murphy from the start? Well maybe, but then he wouldn’t have driven that comeback would he? Same goes for Ruiz, who was influential when introduced, but by then the game was stretched and open, and when that happens he does tend to look like one of the team’s better players. Jol has to work out how to get him that kind of space in the first halves of games.
Otherwise, as you’d expect. We were only in a position to nearly get a penalty because Mark Schwarzer made some stunning saves, two in a row in the second half that almost defied probability (to the extent that a goal seemed almost certain to come), another from Ashley Young’s curler that showed his footwork and judgement to be A1 as ever. Everyone else did what they normally do, more or less: if you didn’t see the game, don’t worry – it was exactly how you’d think a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford would be.
No shame there. The disappointment is in losing at Villa and being destroyed by Swansea, but last night’s match was sufficiently okay to suspect that heads haven’t dropped, nobody’s panicking and three points aren’t far off.