I was planning to write a detailed, nuanced analysis of Martin Jol’s interesting approach to last night’s game against Manchester United – otherwise known as the Premier League version of a hiding to nothing – until the clock ticked around to injury time. I’m sure it will soon follow but the abiding image of my own visit to Old Trafford will be Danny Murphy on the floor in the penalty area and Michael Oliver sprinting away from the box rather than giving the idea of awarding a spot-kick a moment’s thought.
It might be a stretch to suggest Fulham were robbed but Jol’s own reaction was pretty measured. He’s experienced the agony of refereeing injustice at Old Trafford before. For Michael Carrick’s mistimed tackle read Pedro Mendes’ long-range ‘winner’ in January 2005. You remember the one that was yards over the goal-line before Roy Carroll made a token effort to drag it back into play – and the officials waved play on. By a strange quirk of fate, Carrick was in the Tottenham team that night. You only needed to look at his guilty glance at the referee – and Sir Alex Ferguson’s anguished placing of a finger against his temple in an expressing of a rage at his own player’s stupidity – to understand just how clear a penalty it was.
Not only did Carrick take away Murphy’s standing leg with a mistimed tackle, but he also grabbed hold of the Fulham susbtitute’s back prior to bringing him down for good measure. Plenty of the discussion on my walk up Sir Matt Busby Way afterwards condemned the Scouser for ‘going down too easily,’ but the papers were largely united in their reading of the incident. Since Murphy had beaten Carrick and worked himself a couple of yards of space to exploit, why would he even consider tumbling to earth theatrically? Quite how Paddy Crerand can claim with a straight face that Murphy should have been sent off for diving is beyond me.
I’m not all that interested in reigniting any lingering debate about how difficult it may be to get a penalty at the home of the champions. Hackneyed football cliche it may be, but decisions often even themselves out over the course of a season. Rio Ferdinand was harshly penalised for his challenge on Hatem Ben Arfa back in November – a decision that cost United a couple of points – so we’ll have to hope that a referee looks more favourably on a Fulham appeal between now and May. As I turned away to allow the agony to sink it, it was telling to note the reaction of the massed ranks of the Manchester United stewards and the GMP constabulary at the back of the South Stand, who immediately told each other that ‘United had got away with one’.
The disappointment hasn’t really subsided and it’s been the best part of five hours since my train arrived back at Euston.