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Published: 31 October 2001

by RED11 StatMan Paul Hinson

Football by nature is a controversial game, and when you add the high-profile status of Manchester United, debates about incidents in their fixtures seem to cause bigger ructions than any other club.

The latest drama centered on referee Dermot Gallaghers decision to yellow card Leeds Uniteds Robbie Keane for his retaliation on David Beckham at Old Trafford, when the majority of the 67,555 crowd, Keanes Manager, David O'Leary, and the player himself, all expected the Republic of Ireland star to be taking the long lonely walk back to the dressing room. The Football Association, faced with accusations of inconsistency from its referees, promptly decided to 'demote' Gallagher to officiating in Nationwide League fixtures, though what message is being sent by sending a referee who has failed in his duties to the long-suffering souls of Grimsby Town and Wrexham I am not sure.

A look back in time reiterates how decisions from the man with the whistle can affect the futures of players, managers and clubs.

One of the biggest media outbursts came in January 1995, when Eric Cantona was sent off by Alan Wilkie after kicking at Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw. This in turn triggered abuse from Palace fan Matthew Simmons, which Cantona reacted to violently as he was leaving the field, and a 9-month ban resulted. What a pity that the referee did not take heed of the persistent off-the-ball niggling Shaw subjected the Frenchman to up to that point, or Alex Fergusons warning at the end of the first half that to ignore it would be regrettable.

Disallowed goals can provoke severe dissent. When Roy Keane hammered the ball past Arsenals David Seaman in the 1999 FA Cup Semi-Final first meeting at Villa Park, referee David Ellaray disallowed it as his Assistant decided retrospectively that Dwight Yorke had been standing in an offside position some 30 seconds before the net bulged. A win for the Reds that day would have meant a replay was not needed, a match in which Keane himself ended up with a red card.....

The referees decision is final, and games can hinge on one vital ruling. Though United eventually won the 1999 European Cup Final, think back to the goal that divided the teams for more than 80 minutes. Ronny Johnsen was dubiously penalised for a 'foul' on Bayern Munichs Carsten Jancker, and up stepped Mario Basler to wrong-foot Peter Schmeichel with a clever free kick. For a long time, that decision by the otherwise excellent Pierluigi Collina looked like settling the destiny of the biggest prize in European club football.

Big Finals are always placed under more focus than other games, take the 1983 League Cup Final at Wembley. United had scored first, were grimly hanging with basically 10 ten with centre back Gordon McQueen injured and providing nuisance value on the right wing. A sudden counter-attack finds McQueen out wide and clear of the Liverpool defence and keeper Bruce Grobellaar haring out of his goal. McQueen is crudely fouled some 35 yards out and with no covering defender in sight. Grobellaar is merely cautioned by George Courtney , and survives to see his team grind down Atkinsons men and retain the trophy.

When Peter Willis decided to make some history and make Kevin Moran the first player to be dismissed in an FA Cup Final for a challenge on Evertons Peter Reid, the incident served only to galvanise the Reds, and Normans Whitesides winner served to show that sometimes even a blunder by a referee can be overcome.

Some mistakes are overruled. In 1998 at the Reebok Stadium, Gary Pallister was sent off by Paul Durkin for the heinous crime of taking a punch in the face from Boltons Noel Blake! Fortunately the FA looked at the video evidence and quickly ruled him innocent.

Justice can take many forms. In 1999, Middlesbroughs Juninho was through on goal at Old Trafford and was denied by a terrific tackle by Jaap Stam, nicking the ball away from danger. Result? Andy D'Urso points to the penalty spot. Cue a massed protest by incensed United players, ref runs away, is chased, and the delay and hostile atmosphere serves to unsettle Juninho. The Brazilians spot-kick is saved by Mark Bosnich and the Reds go on to another victory.

Officials are only human, and any game carefully scrutinised can throw up errors. In the Leeds game last Saturday already mentioned, was Mark Viduka offside before he scored for the visitors? A few days prior, was the German referee showing weakness when, after awarding Ruud Van Nistelrooy a penalty, he allowed Olympiakos players the opportunity to rough up the penalty spot and allow a shoving contest in the area for almost 2 minutes before order was restored?

Inconsistency is one of the most annoying bugbears of the game, and probably always has been. A week ago, former United midfielder Paul Ince was sent off after an incident with Sunderlands Niall Quinn, which looked less serious than the Robbie Keane spat. And if the Keane involved had been the United captain, would that have made a difference in Gallaghers thinking? Steve Bennett chose to wave the red card to Roy at St James' Park in September after an attempt by Alan Shearer to waste time, which clearly riled him. Was that more serious than the hands raised to Beckham?

It used to be the 'Men in Black'. Now they wear an assortment of colours. They used to have Linesmen. Now they have 'Assistants'. They were all classed by the fans as myopic and their parentage questioned. Maybe some things, no matter the packaging, will never change.........

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