If you’re prone to spluttering “the game’s gone” at regular intervals, one of the reasons for dusting down this three-word incantation at regular intervals is probably the sight of players tumbling theatrically over imaginary obstacles and then desperately seeking out an appropriate body part to hug whilst grimacing and sneaking the occasional look to make sure the referee has stopped play in their favour. It used to be just the Colombians.
This is not just a regular occurrence in the Premier League these days, it happens every five minutes in every game. A malaise that we once labeled “foreign influence” in an old-fashioned fit of gammon-induced blinkerdom, is now carried out by every Tom, Dick and English Harry.
Although Liverpool have come into the spotlight in recent weeks because of the light as a feather balance problems of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, the practice of “making sure you get the free kick” (- James Carragher, Autumn 2020) is now so rife as to be warmly acclaimed as cleverness by some pundits in the overstuffed football media.
⚑ There were two interesting examples in the City v Liverpool clash last weekend. As early as the 13th minute, Mane cut into the box in usual flying fashion. Clipped by the unnecessary intervention of a slumbering Kyle Walker, a penalty was inevitable. As the contact lifted the striker slightly out of his chosen path to goal, the inestimable Craig Pawson would have had no doubt, but Mane chose to flip a little just to make sure. It was enough for a penalty, but Mane was, in Carragher’s terminology, “making sure” the ref gave it.
What irked was something that had happened moments earlier at the other end. Sterling, similarly light on his feet to the Liverpool flier, had wriggled free and was running with intent towards the target when a heavy nudge on the thigh from Diogo Jota knocked his balance. The City man struggled on into the box where his run finally came to a halt when his lack of equilibrium got the better of him. The forward momentum had carried him another five or so strides forward but the initial touch from Jota, more obtrusive than Walker’s penalty infringement, had done the job. It was a free kick, but because Sterling had soldiered on instead of collapsing in a flailing heap of badly arranged limbs, Pawson ignored it. Jota, who showcased a new tendency to throw up his arms and remonstrate at absolutely everything, got away with the nudge, while Walker did not. Some infringements are bigger than others, evidently.
Pawson, of course, like many others, has history with City.
There have been many such comings together in recent seasons, some punished properly, some rightly ridiculed for the over-exuberance of the presumed-to-be assaulted player. Conning the ref and winning freekicks, playing clever and making sure are all parts of the armory of the great and good as they go about their on-pitch business these days. There is no club bias in this. They are, sadly, all at it.
To reason that referees being conned by arch deceivers is a recent thing would be daft in the extreme. The men in black have been getting things wrong for over a century, sometimes through their own short-sightedness, sometimes through the work of third parties.
⚑ Liverpool’s red shirts always remind me of Alf Grey, sadly a man destined to go down in City folklore as the grand spoiler, the man who phones the police at ten-thirty to say there is someone hanging from the hood of his coat from the tree across the road, where a lively get together is just moving through the gears. Alf it was, in his great grey wisdom, who cancelled out Kevin Reeves’ floating leap to get to the ball ahead of Ray Clemence and Alan Kennedy in the opening minutes of a tumultuous League Cup semi final first leg in 1980-81. No contact had been made on the England ‘keeper bar the usual brushing of limbs. Clemence to his credit made no great meal of any minor impact that may have occurred, but the potentially game-changing and tie-shaping early goal was ruled out. The frizzie-haired Kennedy also seemed blissfully unaware of any skullduggery. Needless to say, after Alfred's big moment, Liverpool prevailed as usual.
The eighties, of course, was not short of those interested in making a full contact sport out of football. Ron Harris and Peter Storey may have retired by then, but Willie Young, Kenny Burns, Mark Dennis, Pat van den Hauwe and Terry Horlock were still around to aim a kick at anyone frivolous enough to start slaloming through their area of the pitch.
Reeves flies, Kennedy and Clemence flounder. Pheeeeeeep!⚑ Those were the days of x-rated tackles going largely unpunished. City saw Colin Bell depart to ligament damage after Martin Buchan’s horrendous attempt of a tackle in the 4th round League Cup derby in 1975-76. Andy May found himself red-carded in 1985 as a promotion run-in cliffhanger with Oldham turned sour on the appropriately-named Gary Hoolickin’s vicious assault that merited several cards, but got only a single yellow. That card, insufficient as it was for the dangerous intervention from Hoolickin on youngster Jamie Hoyland, who lay in a motionless, heap for minutes whilst all hell broke loose around his crumpled form, was brandished by none other than Peter Willis, another referee destined for the little black book of grudges borne, sitting metaphorically in every City supporter’s back pocket. Willis, a big, bald policeman with the upright, no-nonsense manner to match, was rewarded with a meat and potato pie to the head as he made for the dressing rooms at half time.
⚑ Brian Coddington, or Brain Coddlington as his friends called him, probably also merits inclusion in all those little imaginary notebooks. Sending Kevin Horlock off at Dean Court, Bournemouth, for “aggressive walking”, a moment etched in City history as clearly as Aguero’s heroics v QPR and Yaya Toure smashing one in against Sunderland at Wembley, Coddington probably coddled his chances of big time reffing there and then. 13th February 1999 was the moment that his career began to unravel. For Horlock, outraged and bewildered, more exciting things lay ahead. The moment of farce came in the final seconds of a game that had already seen Jamie Pollock red-carded for a proper red meat foul on John Bailey.
⚑ Mike Dean also got his whistle in a twist on the same ground, the old Dean Court having given way to the more prosaically named Vitality Stadium, in 2017. With time not only seeping away but dripping its very last injury time drops, up popped Raheem Sterling with a more-than-useful 97th minute winner.
Cue pandemonium (rightly so, as Lee Probert’s magic board of numbers had insisted only 5 minutes of extra time would be allowed) with the players joined by ecstatic fans in a giant scrummage on the touchline. The goal had been late, scruffy and deflected, the celebration a complete shambolic mosh pit to match it. When Sterling finally emerged from the crowd, Dean was waiting for him with his red card stretched triumphantly into the air. Take that, unjustifiably happy man, he seemed to be saying.
The same match had witnessed a horrendous late tackle by Steve Cook on Gabriel Jesus, which had brought froth to Pep Guardiola’s mouth and the forced substitution of the hobbling Brazilian. Cook was booked for his crime. Nathan Ake, at that stage a young tyro for the home side, had also escaped a red card as the at-that-point lenient Dean let him off, despite being the last defender hauling Jesus down as he went through on goal.
City have not always been the injured party of course, although it is clearly less demanding on the soul to recall instances of “being done up like a kipper” than all those other moments when the elbow was attached to the other arm.
⚑ Pedro Mendes and the over-excitable Ben Thatcher will know exactly what I am referring to here. Whether the ex-Portsmouth midfielder still has a dent in his head from Thatcher’s assault is unknown, but it would not come as a surprise. The Portuguese spent an uncomfortable night in Manchester Royal Infirmary and still to this day has hazy recollection of what he calls “the worst moment of my career”. Thatcher, for his sin, stayed on the pitch with just a yellow card as punishment. Today he would be hung out to dry by the great and the good of social media. Even in Carragher’s new age terms, making sure the ball was won would not cut muster on this grave occasion. Thatcher had not even looked at the ball before charging diagonally at his prey, aiming a raised forearm and crunching it across Mendes’ jaw as he shaped to clear up the pitch
Salah’s six yard box unsteadiness was matched to some extant in the early 70s by Francis Lee, who won himself a large proportion of the many penalties he studiously walloped into the opposition net for City over a career spanning eight seasons at Maine Road. Lee, a sight more robust in build than the Egyptian, did not gain the moniker Lee Won Pen without merit, although the vast majority were clearly not in need of winning in the first place, considering the tackles going in from the likes of Dave Mackay, Norman Hunter and Terry Hennessey.
Lee was not averse to letting the man in the middle know when he had been diddled by someone else either. In an infamously all-action humdinger of a Manchester derby at Maine Road in 1971, the City forward comically let the matchstick-legged Mr Tinkler know that George Best’s flimsy attempt to stay on his feet after Lee had given him a nudge from behind in the centre circle had been a slice of Irish theatre. As he was offered a cheap booking, Lee stuck out his arms and dived to the turf to illustrate the point. The huge crowd roared its approval, summoning up the energy needed to boo Best for his antics for the rest of the game.
⚑ Another Manchester derby of high tension, played out at Old Trafford in the FA Cup nearly a quarter of a century later (1995-96), also left indelible referee imprints in the minds of the City faithful. This time it was no plodding Willis or off-colour Grey, no coddled Coddington or ding-a-ling Tinkler, but a miniscule bald Geordie with a moustache, who went by the name of Albertino Dicky (actually it was more like Alan Wilkie, but I can’t get myself to utter his name). Dicky it was, who awarded United a face-saving penalty after Uwe Rosler had chipped City into a magnificent lead, well received by the 11,000 or so Blues packing the away end that day.
With tensions understandably high, a corner, as innocuous as it was imprecise, drifted into the box from Ryan Giggs’ majestorial left foot, where the Gallic charmer Eric Cantona stood unperturbed amongst a gaggle of City players. Standing closest, no other than Michael Frontzeck, a German World Cup star of the past, who in his Manchester City reincarnation could not have chipped the top off a boiled egg. “It was always going to be a controversial ruling,” suggested Henry Winter in The Times, “Alan Wilkie, to his credit, was perfectly placed.”
Perfectly placed to see that absolutely nothing had happened, that is. Alan Ball, City’s triumphantly dressed manager that afternoon (shell suit and flat cap, the sheer whiff of FA Cup sartorial elegance), tried the age-old question afterwards, his squeaky voice an octave higher even than usual. “Would it have been given at the other end?” he peeped. “I very much doubt it!”
City were, of course, relegated at the end of that horrible 95-96 season, not an unusual occurrence in the 80s or the 90s. In fact, it was a horribly familiar occurrence by the end of that second decade. It would happen again in 2001, as Wilkie, with the “k” removed, transformed into Alan Wiley and did the dirty in Middlesbrough. “I’m frustrated, exasperated, puzzled,” spluttered manager Joe Royle reading directly from his thesaurus, after the hapless Wiley had ruled out a brilliant goal from the Australian tyro Danny Tiatto that, by season end, would have made the difference between survival and yet another tear-stained demotion.
Mr Wiley kindly explained to an eye-popping Royle at half time that Andrei Kanchelskis, the ex-United flier now temporarily a pedestrian and humdrum City winger, had run across the goalkeeper’s line of sight. The Russian had in fact been perfectly onside and out of the way the whole time. “He’s quite quick, but not that quick,” retorted Royle, making a strangling gesture with his hands behind Wiley’s back.
⚑ Roger Gifford would also have been sent to the gallows, if Howard Kendall had had his way. The fury whistler allowed Gary Crosby's touch of grand larceny to stand when the little Forest imp headed the ball out of a dozing Andy Dibble's hand for the winner in the 1989 City Ground encounter.
No reffing disaster story would be complete without the high self-esteem of Mark Clattenburg getting a deserved airing. We are in Bolton, and why not, as Clattenburg makes good what later would seem like a preplanned drone strike on Craig Bellamy. The feisty Welshman, easy to dislike even to those of a gentle disposition, fell the wrong side of Clattenburg’s whistle in a thrilling 3-3 draw at the Reebok that saw Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen call the referee “incredibly wrong”, Bolton boss Gary Megson name him “harsh” and City boss Mark Hughes choose“laughable” when it was his turn.
It was not enough that Paul Robinson’s meaty challenge was in fact the act warranting Clattenburg’s theatrically pulled card, not Bellamy for “simulation”, but Consett's finest had asked Hughes before the game how he put up with Bellamy for his mouthy presence. It had clearly been an occasion when the ref’s cards preceded him into the game. Clattenburg ended up in Saudia Arabia, showcasing his skills to a different public.The Sunday Mirror's Simon Mullock nominates Martin "Next Goal Wins" Atkinson's Manchester derby performance in 2009 (strange how so many derbies have brought grievances...). As we have seen with Sterling's effort at Bournemouth in more recent times, it all comes around and goes around. In fact Sterling features heavily in some of the more recent blunders to go in our favour. The 6-0 rout against Shakhtar in the Champions League was sent on its way when the striker stubbed his toe in the turf and fell comically to the ground. Referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot, offering a golden opportunity not only for Gabriel Jesus to net from the spot, but also for The Sun to produce one of their worst back pages in recent times. "City's Sporting Shame", they bellowed weirdly the next morning and even, slightly childishly, crossed out the six to replace it with a five, the first time in football history a daily newspaper has been responsible for changing the score of a professional football match.
⚑ Sterling it was who also crossed from behind the byline to set up Kevin de Bruyne in the sizzling 2016 League Cup semi final second leg with Everton, a match that saw Everton fans being addressed with punches in what they thought was a neutral zone (what, where?) at the Etihad and Eliaquim Mangala getting away with a "tackle" that saw his studs so high up Aroune Kone's back, he was in with a chance of getting his laces wrapped around the Evertonian's ear lobe. With Fernandinho's equaliser on the night also going in via a deflection, City could count themselves a little lucky, but to even things up, the woodwork had been hit twice and the inspirational De Bruyne left the field with his knee in a brace.
Easy as it is to list the refereeing antics that have undone potentially critical City moments of triumph, there have been plenty in the other direction too. Who in a wet Wembley crowd as the game passed the 90 minutes mark in the 1999 play off final did not turn and look at their neighbour when Mark Halsey announced five minutes of added time? The upswell of noise that came from this heaven-sent but over-generous extra minutes produced two of the most crucial City goals ever, 50,000 pairs of spoiled pants and an afternoon that remains one of the most hair raising experiences watching this daft old club.
We raise a glass to them all*, then, the good, the bad and the indifferent. They have made our life hell and they have saved us at the death. Above all they keep us scratching our heads and give us the weekly opportunity to proclaim the end of football as we know it.
*with the obvious exception of Antonio Lahoz ⚑