Manchester United are one of the top clubs in the world. They’ve won 19 league titles, 11 FA Cups, lifted the European Cup three times and are currently running away with this season’s Premier League title. Last season’s turnover was an eye-watering £320million and they consistently sell out their 76,000 ground at Old Trafford. In contrast, newly promoted West Ham United have won three FA Cups, the now defunct Cup Winners Cup once and er, that’s it. Historically agreed to play “attractive football” they are hoping to move into a bigger financial league with an agreement in place to rent the Olympic Stadium in nearby Stratford.
For all their resources the Reds have a long-standing problem attracting good goalkeepers. The gaps between the eight-year reign of the Great Dane Peter Schmeichel and six-season spell of Dutch Master Edwin van der Sar have been filled by a series of very ordinary replacements. Current No1 David De Gea has put in some excellent performances since signing from Atletico Madrid but it’s patently obvious he struggles to impose himself physically at corners.
On Wednesday night West Ham played Man Utd at the Boleyn Ground with canny manager Sam Allardyce keen to use every advantage at his disposal. Crucially every time the home side won a corner they would set up a screen of Kevin Nolan, Winston Reid and Ricard Vaz Te in front of De Gea, crowding the goal area and restricting his already flimsy attempts at clearing the first ball. Striker Andy Carroll and centre-back James Collins then attacked firmly hit corners as a pair.
The tactic worked well with the visitors looking increasingly panicked on each set piece. So much so that on the stroke of half-time and as Carroll launched himself at a left-wing corner Reds defender and captain Nemanja Vidic felt he had to step across the mid-air attacker, bumping with his hip and sending 6ft 3in of Geordie wrecking ball hurtling into his own keeper who had just flapped a weak fist at the ball. Cue an animated Sir Alex Ferguson haranguing the fourth official as he demanded the striker be sent off. Despite almost no protests from his players the stream of vitriol from the manager continued as the officials walked to the tunnel.
As night follows day, so the next “challenge” from Carroll on De Gea led to a caution for the striker as the keeper managed to wrap his arms with the ball around the torso of West Ham’s No8. Fast-tracked referee Lee Probert has a history with Ferguson and has been heavily criticised by the manager in the past leading to the strong impression he had been “got at” by the red-faced fury over the interval.
Worse followed for West Ham as with less than a quarter of an hour on the clock and the Hammers leading 2-1 Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa’s shot deflected off both uprights into the path of an unmarked and offside Robin van Persie, who equalised.
Post-match both managers were in high dudgeon. Ferguson claimed, “They’re very, very aggressive” and with no apparent sense of irony, “You hope there’s a strong referee — I’m not so sure we got that” before commenting on Carroll’s challenge, “It’s an obvious red card, but the referee’s seen it differently.” For his part Allardyce was as angry with the linesman as Fergie was the ref even if the threat of a Premier League fine ensured he chose his words extremely carefully, “Their job is to give the offside decisions when they appear in front of them. This was a blatant one. There is no excuse. It is not a positioning issue. He is straight across the line on the last defender and can see Van Persie is two yards offside. When it hits the post and comes to him, he should put his flag up but doesn’t. He has taken a famous victory from us. To draw this game by default is a bitter pill to swallow.”
I see two outcomes from the game. First, an assistant referee has denied West Ham two points and gifted the Champions-elect one.
Secondly, it is quite likely over the rest of the season the inability of Manchester United’s keeper to deal with corners and the attendant publicity will lead to free-kicks, yellow cards and possibly worse going against West Ham by referees routinely cowed by the bigger clubs.
As for the “offside” goal? No, I don’t expect any consequence…