The Webb Man U conspiracy
By Neal Collins
Depending on your allegiances, Howard Webb is either England’s pre-eminent World Cup final referee or Manchester United’s greatest signing. Those are just two of the printable labels used to describe the 40-year-old former policeman from Rotherham.
On Sunday at Stamford Bridge, those (and there are many of us) who believe he is Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest ally came loudly to the fore as United, 3-0 down against Chelsea, were given two questionable penalties – both stuck away by Wayne Rooney in the space of 10 minutes – before a Javier Hernandez equaliser forced a dramatic share of the spoils.
But even that wasn’t good enough for Sir Alex. After the match, he claimed: “We could have had four penalties. How they didn’t give one in the first half I don’t know. That linesman (the previously anonymous Darren Cann)… I don’t know where they get them from.
“They should’ve had a man sent off in the first half. Danny’s clear through and he was brought down. Nothing, no decision.
“That linesman gave a penalty kick against us from 40 yards away last year against Liverpool, this year against Arsenal – and he can’t see that?
“I don’t blame Howard Webb – he needed help in that situation and he didn’t get it.”
And in a couple of phrases that would land most other Premier League managers in hot water, he added for good measure: “That assistant referee, who’s all too happy to flag at Old Trafford for penalty kicks, didn’t give them.”
And that, in a nutshell, is Mr Webb’s problem. It’s not that anybody is suggesting he gets paid by United to give penalties – they’ve had eight this season so far – it’s just that he appears to be the referee most susceptible to Fergie’s particular Strathclyde dockworker style of persuasion.
At 70, Ferguson has been putting pressure on referees since he gave up his role as an “effective striker with a lot of elbows” to coach St Mirren in 1974. When he went to Aberdeen in 1978 and trophies began to come his way, I remember Gordon Strachan telling us how the young coach used to tell his players to surround referees if they’d made a clearly difficult decision against his side.
There was one particular scene, involving Roy Keane and David Beckham, with referee Andy D’Urso in 2000 I will never forget. The poor ref looked like he was going to have a heart attack. A vein in Keane’s temple was throbbing. D’Urso had nowhere to go. And all because he’d awarded a penalty against United at Old Trafford. He didn’t get many United games after that.
And those intimidatory tactics have worked wonders ever since. That’s nearly 40 years of bullying. Players, referees, journalists, even the FA and the Glazer family who now squeeze the cash out of United. They all get it. In spades.
On Sunday, when Gary Cahill escaped punishment for that sliding challenge on Danny Welbeck a yard outside the box in the first half, the expression on Ferguson’s florid face wasn’t so much anger as bewilderment. His striker had been sent tumbling and NOTHING HAD BEEN GIVEN. He could barely believe it.
It is my firm belief that Sir Alex, now beyond the realms of usual managerial behaviour in the Premier League after 25 years in charge at Old Trafford, made his feelings evident to Webb and his fellow officials at halftime. He’s bigger than the game now. He does what he wants.
And when we came out for the second half, the ever-willing Mr Webb was eager to make amends. To fall out with Sir Alex is not good for a referee. Sir Alex, more than any other top coach, gets to tell the FA who he wants in charge of his matches. If you fall out with United, your stock as a public figures soon declines. Blowing the whistle at West Brom v Wigan on a wet Wednesday night simply doesn’t cut it.
So what happens? Chelsea go 3-0 up five minutes after the break. A miracle given they are without the three musketeers of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole. Stunning. All footballing logic turned on its head. Chelsea are cruising, United are well beaten.
It takes Mr Webb just eight minutes to restore normality. First, in the 58th minute, marauding French fullback Patrice Evra goes flying in to the box. Unlikely to get his cross in, he steps across Daniel Sturridge’s tackle just as the striker goes in. Watch the video. Ignore the pundits like Alan Curbishley who suggest it was “clear contact, a definite penalty”. If Evra hadn’t moved across the challenge, Sturridge would have made a faultless tackle.
But Webb was ready, just waiting for the tumble. PENALTY! Chelsea’s defenders barely complained. They were three goals up. Rooney stuck it away. But still 3-1.
But 10 minutes later, it got worse. A lot worse. Just like Adam Johnson for Manchester City the day before, Welbeck did the “dangly leg” thing, the latest fashion for Premier League cheats. On the edge of the box, Branislav Ivanovic stuck out a despairing foot to make a challenge. With Welbeck no threat from that position, Ivanovic quickly pulled back the offending limb. But not quick enough to avoid Welbeck – he actually moved his leg away from the path of the ball to ensure Ivanovic made contact, and tumbled theatrically to the floor. PENALTY!
From then on, with Chelsea heads down, it was just a matter of time before, in the 84th minute, the little Mexican pea Hernandez produced his equaliser. The only surprise was that United didn’t go on to win it. Chelsea were gone. Andre Villas Boas had learned another valuable English lesson.
I guess you can say one thing for Webb in this instance. At least he made a game of it. No, I’m not saying he intentionally cheated. Just that he was eager to keep the old tyrant happy on the side as he waved his hands around and informed Webb just how much injury time to allow.
Graham Poll, the thing from Tring who fulfilled the high-profile refereeing role before Webb, was another who recognised the need to keep Fergie happy. He now writes a column for the Daily Mail and is a well-rewarded after-dinner speaker, neatly forgetting the time he handed three yellow cards to a Croatian at the 2006 World Cup.
Webb is rapidly falling in to the same traps Poll did. He revels in being the centre of attention, he loves the banter with the players, being a name. But is it any wonder?
As an 18-year-old he started refereeing in the North East Counties League on the advice of his father. As far as I can tell he never played any serious football, few of the modern whistlers do. Long gone are the days when ex-players used to take up officiating. Most start in their teens now as the FIFA retirement age is a ridiculously young 45.
At 38 Webb hit the peak of his art, refereeing Spain’s World Cup final win over Holland at Soccer City in 2010 where he handed out a record 14 yellow cards (one of them became a red for Johnny Heitinga, the previous highest for a final was six) and failed to send off Nigel de Jong for a perfectly placed kung-fu kick on the chest of Xavi Alonso. For once both sides were furious after the game. But Webb survived the furore and has another six years of whistling while he works ahead of him.
Now Webb finds himself being dragged further in to, well, a web of intrigue if you like. Long before any United match has kicked off with him in charge, Webb is widely tweeted as being United’s 12th man, their best signing, the one with most assists for the champions. It puts him under huge pressure.
For as long as Sir Alex Ferguson is in charge at United – and it looks like being at least another two years – Webb will be under the spotlight when he handles a United game.
There is one easy way out. He could decline to referee United’s crucial games. Do the honourable thing and admit it’s all become a bit complicated. But he won’t. That would be too great a sacrifice for a man who relishes the limelight.
So for now, we must accept that Webb will be in charge next time United face a serious challenge. And my advice to defenders? Don’t go near Welbeck’s dangling leg in the box. Or Rooney’s new hair. Or Ryan Giggs’ veteran ankles. Webb will be waiting.