Is it impossible to get a penalty at Old Trafford?

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The Old Trafford press room walls echoed with the familiar lament so often heard from travelling managers; this time it was Martin Jol who was left aggrieved from his Fulham side’s trip to Old Trafford.


The scene could have been one from any season in the Premier League era, Jol - interchangeable as any one of United’s Premier League opponents - was left bemoaning a decision the denied his side a penalty and the chance to score an equaliser that could have had huge implication in the outcome of one of the tightest title battles in living memory.


“Everyone in the stadium expected a penalty, you have to be brave to give an away penalty at United," said Jol after the game.


Even Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to admit Fulham should have had a spot kick, even if he did qualify his response by claiming his side should have had a penalty of their own in the first half.


"They had a claim [for a penalty]. Carrick caught Murphy's heel....We had a claim [for a penalty] in the first half. Maybe the referee was thinking about that, but we deserved that bit of luck as we dominated the game.”


United’s reputation for winning penalties that never were or being saved from conceding one by gracious referees is almost mythical.


High profile incidents such as the dubious penalty awarded by Mike Riley as they bought Arsenal’s 49 match winning streak to an end at Old Trafford as Wayne Rooney fell softly back in 2005 coupled with images of Roy Keane and his cronies hounding referees for decisions to go their way have embittered them to the watching public who feel they are favoured because of their reputation and past.

Howard Webb has even become the poster child for those who believe so strongly in the curse placed over referee's at Old Trafford.


So was the man in charge of the game, Michael Oliver, compromised by the weight of expectation at Old Trafford, or haunted by the knowledge that a referee is seemingly more inclined to favour the home side, especially when they’re on a title charge, than a smaller, visiting team?


First and foremost, there is little doubt that Fulham deserved a penalty after Michael Carrick clumsily bundled into the back of Danny Murphy, while the Cottagers could make an excellent case for taking at least a point from the game.


Oliver, the man at the heart of the latest controversy, has by all means set himself aside as one of the leading Premier League officials - even at the tender age of 27 has already been elevated to FIFA’s list of elite referees and has trained among Uefa's chosen ones at the Centre Of Refereeing Excellence (CORE).


However that is not to say he doesn’t make mistakes. Oliver incurred the wrath of Arsene Wenger earlier this season as his Arsenal side went down 3-2 against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium.


With the Gunners 1-0 up thanks to a Robin van Persie strike Oliver handed Swansea a route back into the game when he penalised, wrongly replays suggested, Aaron Ramsey for bringing down Nathan Dyer. Wenger was blunt in his assessment of Oliver’s decision.


“I still don't understand where the referee (Oliver) found the penalty.”


The Frenchman added: “We lost because we played against a good team, we were unlucky because we got a penalty that was not a penalty.”


Perhaps the lowest moment of Oliver’s young career to date came in November 2010 in Norwich’s 3-3 draw with Reading.


With City 3-1 up and half-time approaching, the 27-year-old sent off Grant Holt for a foul on Ian Harte as Reading fought back to claim a point.


“It’s pathetic,” Canaries boss Paul Lambert raged. “I’ve seen it about 19 times. It’s maybe a foul, but never a sending off – pathetic.”


“How old is he, 14? 25? That sums it up,” he continued. “He can go away to work in his kindergarten or wherever he works – he will probably get that wrong as well.


“If you are going to give us a referee make sure you give us one that’s experienced enough to do the job. The game is too big, far, far too big. We are not guinea pigs to anybody.


“If you are not good enough to do it, don’t do it. The game is too big for decisions like that. It’s not just in our game – I have seen games where he has done it before.”


Of course, Lambert’s claim that Oliver cannot handle give correct decisions under pressure is flawed – he became the first referee to award a penalty and a red card in the same game at the new Wembley in the Conference play-off final back in 2006-07.


He’s has won universal praise for his player management style, in particular from David Elleray, the chairman of the FA's Referees' Committee who recently praised his ‘balance’ and ‘calmness’.


Oliver has all the credentials and references that mark him out as one of the Premier League’s finest and his mistakes have been few and far between, but was he seduced by the curse of Old Trafford that has apparently coaxed incorrect decisions in the home teams favour year after year?


The game against Fulham was one of huge importance and the general held belief that referees are less inclined to give visiting teams penalties at Old Trafford when it's 'squeaky bum time' and May is fast approaching.


The short answer is that this doesn’t appear to be the case. Since August 2006, United have conceded nine penalties in Premier League home games, more than seven other teams who have remained in the league during that period, including Fulham.


Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have also been awarded less penalties than both Arsenal and Liverpool across the last ten seasons while their tally of four penalties conceded this season – all at Old Trafford.


The fact is that United got away with one at a crucial time when title rivals Manchester City would have been praying Oliver delivered a blast of his whistle as Murphy tumbled, thus causing the perpetuation of a myth.


Of equal significance to both clubs was Chelsea’s home game against Tottenham, with both teams desperate after poor runs in the race for a vital top four spot.


Yet there has been little reaction to William Gallas’s equally clumsy tackle on Frank Lampard on Saturday, nor has there been any where near as much coverage regarding Gareth Barry’s crunching tackle on Glenn Whelan which could have resulted in a penalty and a red card, potentially changing the course of the title race significantly.


With TV replays slowing the action down to a snail's pace of course Oliver’s decision looked much more dubious than it perhaps was in the real-time he had to make his snap assessment, but referees remain at the sharp edge of the game.


A mistake from an outfield player normally results in the ball rolling out of play or possession being sacrificed, while referees incur the wrath of observers for their decisions.


“The quality of English refereeing is very good given the speed of the game,” said Elleray after Oliver’s decision against Arsenal in January. “Last season, 98 per cent of offside decisions were correct in the Premier League.


"Referees still make fewer mistakes than players, but if they make a mistake it is always the turning point of the game.


"If a player misses a penalty, an open goal, or gives a silly back-pass, they don't get the same level of criticism as the referee. Twas ever thus.''


And, if there was ever any doubt about Oliver’s integrity, cast your mind back to United’s 2-1 defeat against Wolves last season. Nemanja Vidic is denied a stonewall penalty with the score at 1-1 before the relegation threatened side claimed a 2-1 win. The referee that day? You can probably guess.

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