In his Daily Mail column, Graham Poll describes as indefensible the decision that helped confirm the identity of this season’s Premier League champions.
Lee Mason gave the 15th minute penalty as reward for Ashley Young’s sensational dive – one of those shown in the brilliant clip above – after Shaun Derry’s hand lightly brushed his shirt. Young was in mid-flight before any suggestion appeared of that hand trying half-heartedly to grip the fabric on his back.
Poll knows a lot about indefensible refereeing decisions: that third yellow card springs to mind as do the unseen (by him) assault by Ben Thatcher on Nicky Summerbee in the build-up to a winning goal (for Wimbledon v SAFC) and Andy Cole’s handball immediately before another winner (for Man Utd at Sunderland).
But Mason was not the target of Poll’s rebuke; step forward instead Ceri Richards, “one of the most experienced assistant referees around”, who had completely missed the fact that as well as not being fouled, Young was a yard offside.
So while Mason was, in Poll’s judgement, fooled by Young’s cheating, Richards’s lapse was ”inexcusable”. That is harsh, but it is hardly unfair. Everyone makes mistakes at work but while most Premier referees and linesmen make many fewer than the handsomely paid men players with them on the field, their errors are potentially critical and invariably visible.
But at the risk of sending crockery flying at the Mayfield guest house (where our friend Vince Richardson feels we already bang on too much about cheating in football), what are we to make of Young’s behaviour and what is tells us about the modern game?
No shameless Johnny Foreigner to blame this time. No possible defence that a lightning fast athlete’s broken momentum made it look so much worse than it was. No smidgeon of doubt that maybe the contact was heavier than it at first seemed. This was an utterly cynical and spectacularly successful attempt to hoodwink a referee, with the effect – as intended – of breaking the deadlock and the by-product – intended or not – of having a fellow professional sent off. The only mitigation I can think of would be that United players are coached to go down easily and dramatically in the penalty area; I hope that is not the case and have no way of knowing one way or the other.
If Ashley Young, a top-class player who is at his best among the EPL’s most exciting to watch, now feels contrite about his actions, so much worse than Richards missing the offside, it would be marvellous for the game it he were to say so openly. He is by no means the only or worst culprit.
But if he actually feels rather proud of his role in making Sunday symbolically so important to Manchester United’s season (even if they were heading, deservedly, for the title in any case), then we may as well give up any lingering hope that modern football is a sport where decency triumphs over ambition.
* No antipathy towards Manchester United inspired these thoughts. I may be rare in being a non-United fan with no hatred of the club but that is the case, as I have explained on these pages more than once (this is one example, though more about not hating Liverpool either: https://safc.blog/2007/05/never-walking-quite-alone/ but there are others). I have huge respect for Sir Alex Ferguson, even if I also deplore his habits of refusing to give post-match interviews and reacting angrily to a perfectly legitimate question. And no one can accuse me of defending Sunderland players who cheat; Seb Larsson’s dive at Wolves was embarrassing and we said so.