When one man might well have cost us the title…

Much is made of Premiership referees’ alleged partiality when it comes to Manchester United, and there will be those who will inevitably bring up Rooney’s elbow on McCarthy against Wigan at the weekend. But the fact of the matter is clear as day – United have consistently been robbed against Chelsea, three outings in a row in fact, by massively questionable refereeing decisions. Last season, two blatant, season-defining offside decisions were ignored. And the referee’s farcical performance in the game last night beggars belief.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories (at least when it comes to football), but Martin Atkinson was biased beyond all reason last night. Call him a ‘rent boy’ if you will, but it isn’t an allegation that’s far off the mark. Sour grapes, some might say, but my views aren’t just my own. Former Premiership referee Graham Poll has come out and said so himself – Atkinson got it wrong. And not just on the one-off occasion. Repeat offences were simply overlooked and a deaf ear turned to warranted pleas from United players calling for action.

A game that could, and probably will, go a long way in deciding the outcome of where the Premiership trophy ends up at the end of this season was marred by a woeful performance from the ref. The game was poised to be a cracker, with United looking to extend their lead at the top of the table in the rearranged fixture against the Londoners.

As early as the 5th minute, Atkinson was already looking daft. A Nani shot from a good 20+ yards out was fizzing towards the target, only to be blocked by John Terry’s arm. He had plenty time to see the ball coming at him and made no effort to get his arm out of the way. Unquestionably a case of hand-to-ball. Atkinson could possibly be pardoned for shying away from awarding a penalty so early on in the game for the handball, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a handball. And we’ve seen them being awarded for less. The rest of the half was played out without too much drama involving the ref, and United went into the break a goal to the good, thanks to Rooney’s cracking effort on the half hour mark.

It was bound to be a physical game, and it lived up to that expectation, with strong tackles more the norm than the exception. In the 57th minute, Chelsea’s summer signing David Luiz sent Javier Hernandez crashing to the ground when the ball was well past him. But the pivotal moment was yet to come. A little less than 20 minutes later the Brazilian, already on a yellow card, was the centre of attention again. He first escaped conceding a penalty despite having his arms all over Rooney in the Chelsea box, and mere moments later, hacked down Rooney ages after the ball had left the attacker’s feet. Any referee would have booked Luiz and sent him off for his second bookable offence, but not Atkinson, who waved play on. But the ludicrousness didn’t end there.

Seconds later, Smalling was adjudged to have tripped Yuri Zhirkov in the penalty box, and a spot kick was awarded. In Smalling’s defence, he had no idea where the ball was and Zhirkov clearly left a leg hanging and made a meal of the “tackle”. Amazing, how the ref spotted and interpreted that one. Frank Lampard slotted home with no fuss, giving Chelsea a thoroughly undeserved lead.

How that brief period in the game would have changed had Luiz been sent off, we will never know. But one can safely say it wouldn’t have ended in a goal for the Blues. The game ended with Vidic being sent off for a second bookable offence, which cannot really be argued. He lost his head and fully deserved the red. But if merely pulling a player back by the shirt is worthy of a yellow, we ought to have seen plenty more names in the referee’s book on the night, and Chelsea down to ten men.

The defeat has left a sour taste in the mouth, not for want of effort but simply for daylight robbery. Football-wise, it was a good game, but the sheen was taken off by a hapless, inconsistent referee who was way out of his depth and floundering.

Sir Alex Ferguson is more than likely to face strict action by the FA for his comments about the referee after the game, and might even receive the suspended two-game touchline ban for his comments on Alan Wiley’s fitness from last season. But in my opinion, and I’m sure this is an opinion that will be shared by other United fans as well, it won’t be a punishment earned in vain.

Martin Atkinson was disgraceful on the night and deserves nothing less than a demotion to a lower league. A much, much lower league. I still wonder why he’s a referee at all. But like the decision to not send off David Luiz, I guess we’ll never know.

Glory Glory Man United.

Anyone willing to volunteer to
check Atkinson’s bank balance?