Stuart Attwell is 27, and very very unpopular. Steve Bruce was managing Wigan Athletic when he reported himself to ‘feel sorry for the young lad’ who had split seven yellow and two red cards between Bruce’s side and West Ham Utd. two seasons ago. After his latest encounter with Atwell, on Saturday afternoon, Bruce was less sympathetic. ‘The first goal [scored by Dirk Kuyt after Fernando Torres had latched onto a Michael Turner free-kick that Sunderland felt had not actually been taken] was a joke’, Bruce said.
In a way it was. Torres almost stopped (twice) to ask Attwell’s permission to continue and the Sunderland goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, stood Barthez-esque with his hand raised while the strikers bore down on him. The goal was awarded only after Attwell had exchanged behind-hand-whispers with the linesman.
But, in the end the right decision was made. Attwell recalled the free-kick after it was taken from the wrong place. That was the right thing to do. He put the ball in the correct position. That was the right thing to do. He presumably then thought the kick was going to be taken, and took the opportunity to get a head start on play and ran into the Liverpool half. That proved a mistake, because when he turned round again Torres was running through on goal. Presumably perplexed over how that had happened, Attwell followed the Liverpool forwards towards goal (running past a furious Turner on the way).
It is hard to know if other referees would have acted differently in the same situation, and perhaps Torres only bothered to collect Turner’s nonchalant roll because the famously ‘inexperienced’ referee had turned his back. That seems unlikely, and although I can’t think of an exactly equivalent situation I remember Wayne Rooney and Manchester United being praised for a clever corner where Rooney knocked the ball out of the quadrant before running disinterestedly away and allowing Nani (if memory serves) to play on directly, the corner having been ‘taken’. This is pretty much the same thing isn’t it? Arsenal tried to take a similar corner once, and the ball was cleared. The referee’s decision? Play on.
Attwell has actually done us all a service here. It is really annoying to sit in the stands/on the couch/on a bar stool and watch the ball be rolled backwards towards a forward strolling keeper, then watch him pick up the ball, flick it out of his hands and then side-foot it to a defender ten yards away from him. It makes sense for teams playing away from home, it lets them waste an easy thirty seconds, and that’s why it happens all the time; but it is very boring to watch.
Obviously Attwell only let this goal happen because he didn’t see what happened, and that is a mistake (I’ve never read the referees’ handbook but I imagine rule one has something to do with never turning your back on play). Convention would have demanded that had he seen what happened he would have recalled play, but convention allows shirt-pulling under every corner and for brutish centre backs obstructing nippy little wingers each time the ball gets near the by-line.
There are lots of examples like this of players taking liberties, and being indulged by referees, even to the extent that certain players feel they can referee the game themselves. Accidently, and through negligence young Stuart Attwell has taken a stand for his profession. His older colleagues would do themselves a favour to support him.