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Stoke City's chairman, Peter Coates, spoke for many of us on Tuesday when he said: "It is well known that the big clubs, especially at home, but often away too, get the big shouts. I am not questioning any referee's integrity, it's human nature. It's always been like that and it never changes." Who could disagree, aside from the more delusional supporters and players - plus obviously the managers - of the leading clubs?
Coates was provoked to speak by the award of a penalty to Raheem Sterling on Sunday, when the Liverpool player handled at high speed - such that he appeared to hesitate in the belief he might be pulled up - before going down with alacrity under an unwise but "soft" challenge from Marc Wilson. These were a critical couple of moments in a game Stoke could easily have gone on to win having been 2-0 down, had they been able to deflate Liverpool further with their own third goal. Instead, despite some nervy moments, Brendan Rodgers became the first Reds manager to leave the Britannia Stadium with three points.
A day before Coates spoke out, a former Stoke player was complaining about the same decisions, Danny Higginbotham being the guest joining Dermot Gallagher in the Sky Sports News slot where the former referee examines the weekend's action. The pair agreed that the penalty should not have been awarded but there were marked differences in their reasoning. While Higginbotham was having no truck with any aspect of what happened, Gallagher said that the assistant should have flagged for handball but that at that speed it was hard to give. He then added that he could see why the penalty had been awarded, without quite saying that he would have made the same decision, the clear implication being that perceptions of a challenge being "soft" does not affect whether or not it was legal. Wilson had made an attempted tackle and only got the man, with the contact being lower body.
Did Coates hear any of what Gallagher said? Probably not, but had he done so then it would have provided fuel to the chairman's argument. Later in the segment Gallagher talked about how most of the decisions a referee makes involve one side demanding it goes their way and the other wanting the opposite; Coates is surely correct in saying that the bigger clubs benefit from more contentious calls than the small ones.
It should be noted that the bigger clubs are more likely to spend time in possession in opponents' penalty areas and so have more situations in which they can benefit from a marginal decision for a spot-kick. Still, that will be no comfort to anyone on the receiving end; a little bit of luck is often what the poorer club need to overcome the advantages of rivals' squillions.
There are other ways of gaining an advantage, though. Later on, Gallagher and Higginbotham looked at a corner during West Ham's win at Cardiff, where some manhandling went unpunished. After discussing the relative rarity of penalising either of two players grappling to attack an aerial ball, Higginbotham fell into reminiscence of a kind that another former Stoke man may not appreciate.
Tony Pulis is now working on his set pieces at Crystal Palace but his old charge fondly recalled a manoeuvre that enabled team-mates to lose their marker. Higginbotham would stand facing towards the ball at a corner; a team-mate behind him would then run forwards as the kick was taken, brushing Higginbotham's side as he went past; the goalside marker would have no way past. As the referee looked at it, Higginbotham was oblivious to this, facing as he was away from the obstructed defender; yet the block was not merely deliberate but long rehearsed. And Stoke will be far from alone in this; rather more isolated will be any teams that do not practise tricking the officials in one way or another.
Referees and linesmen make mistakes in assessing what they do see and miss things that are caught on camera; Sterling should have been flagged because his instinctive raising of his hands allowed him to control the ball, and once this was missed had he played for Stoke there is surely a greater chance that he would not have gone on to be awarded a penalty. But if there is any moral high ground in football it is not located at the Britannia.
I can't wait to see the Liverpool reaction when an opposition player 'wins' a soft penalty against them. Or the reaction of this site. But i am suprised there is no mention of Anthony Taylor's admission that he got the penalty decision wrong, its been on most football and news sites over the past two days.- delboy