Football fans believe that referees are out to get them and favour their rivals. This sport manages to turn the most rational of beings into the most paranoid, and the incompetence of the officials at times does little to help their cause.
In Manchester United’s recent home win against Huddersfield, for example, there was a moment that perfectly summed up the way referees are viewed by supporters.
Terence Kongolo flew in to Scott McTominay in the penalty area, getting nothing on the ball, and the Scotsman was lucky not to have been knocked unconscious. Referee Kevin Friend waved play on, much to the anger of the United fans, amidst the furious chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing!”… from the away supporters.
A minute earlier, the linesman had missed what the Huddersfield fans deemed to be an obvious offside call and were furious that United had remained in possession and mounted another attack. Supporters are rarely happy with the job the officials do and even the introduction of VAR hasn’t solved that.
At the beginning of every Premier League game the referee’s name is booed when it is announced, whoever it may be. They are the enemy.
However, there is one referee, in one particular fixture, that United fans may be forgiven for taking a particularly strong dislike to. Remarkably, he has been appointed to take charge of Sunday’s game against Chelsea, despite his string of atrocious officiating decisions in this match over the years.
Martin Atkinson, a self-confessed Leeds United fan, initially drew attention to himself when United took on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in November 2009.
The first poor decision came early on when Wayne Rooney beat the offside trap and raced behind Chelsea’s backline. He was clean through on goal and had been clearly played onside by Ashley Cole, but the linesman flagged for offside. Atkinson can’t be held accountable but this decision set the tone for the afternoon.
Antonio Valencia then burst in to the Chelsea box with less than a quarter of an hour played, only to have his shirt pulled by John Terry, but Atkinson waved play on.
Later, the referee awarded Chelsea a free kick when Darren Fletcher won the ball fairly from Cole. The resulting freekick saw Didier Drogba, in an offside position, wrestle Wes Brown to the floor, leaving John Terry to score.
“This was such a travesty of justice that Manchester United should follow Chelsea’s recent example and appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” Henry Winter wrote in The Telegraph after the game.
“They had been the more assertive team throughout, defending diligently and attacking with purpose when the opportunity arose, and would surely have claimed something from the game, quite possibly a victory, had not the two big refereeing decisions gone in Chelsea’s favour,” wrote Oliver Kay in The Times.
As Wayne Rooney left the field, he mouthed “12 men” to the Sky Sports camera, presumably referring to Atkinson and not the quiet home crowd. Sir Alex Ferguson claimed people “lose faith in refereeing” because of performances like Atkinson’s that day.
Chelsea went on to win the title by one point that season and on the final day in May, thoughts from many Reds drifted back to the day Atkinson had gifted Carlo Ancelotti’s team victory.
The following season, Atkinson took charge of another huge game between the two teams in March 2011.
Again, the game was full of controversy.
Terry intentionally blocked a Nani shot with his arm in the penalty area but nothing was given.
David Luiz made foul after foul, particularly targeting Rooney, yet only picked up one yellow card. After the game, even Ancelotti conceded the defender should have been sent off. One challenge in particular, where Luiz hacked Rooney down when he was through on goal, didn’t even result in a freekick, when a second booking should have been made.
“How Martin Atkinson missed it beggared belief, particularly as the referee was 10 yards away,” Winter wrote.
Of course, it was Luiz who scored Chelsea’s equalising goal, before they were awarded a penalty when Yury Zhirkov ran in to Chris Smalling and dived over his stationary foot.
“I find the penalty for Chelsea very dubious,” then Chelsea defender, Branislav Ivanovic, said after the game. “It was too easily adjudged. I have to admit that after seeing it again. I thought it was a penalty when Zhirkov fell but, afterwards, I saw it never was.”
The only person to face any action following Atkinson’s poor performance, Luiz’s fouls and Zhirkov’s dive was Ferguson, who was charged for his post-match comments.
“You want a fair referee, or a strong referee anyway – and we didn’t get that,” he said at the final whistle. “I must say, when I saw who the referee was I feared it. I feared the worst.”
In the first meeting between the two clubs following Ferguson’s retirement, a 0-0 at Old Trafford under David Moyes, United supporters felt aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a penalty when Frank Lampard blocked a Tom Cleverley shot in the penalty area with his hands.
Unsurprisingly, Atkinson waved play on. This was probably the sort of decision that United fans would have forgotten if not for Atkinson’s history in this fixture and instead was deemed as further evidence of his incompetence.
In December 2015, Atkinson again failed to award United the penalties they deserved, one clearer than the other. Willian clearly controlled the ball with his arm in the penalty area, before Cesar Azpilicueta brought down Juan Mata at the end of the game.
“Van Gaal, understandably, questioned why United were not awarded two penalties – both in the second half – when the ball reared up and struck Willian on the arm and then when Juan Mata was challenged by Cesar Azpilicueta as he threatened to skirt around the Chelsea defender. Both appeals were waved away by referee Martin Atkinson,” Jason Burt wrote in The Telegraph.
The most recent game between the two clubs that Atkinson refereed was the painful 4-0 defeat for United at Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte’s side were head and shoulders better than Jose Mourinho’s on his first return to his old stomping ground.
However, in the first half, with United 2-0 down, Luiz was guilty of a horror challenge on Marouane Fellaini, planting his studs on the Belgian’s knee and getting nothing of the ball. Atkinson opted to show just a yellow card instead of the red that the challenge warranted. United may still have gone on to lose the game but having the man advantage they deserved for almost an hour could have seen the game turned on its head.
With this long list of errors behind him, it’s strange that Atkinson has been chosen for the fixture yet again.
That’s not to say that Chelsea have always had the rub of the green where officials are concerned when the two face each other. The “referee, leader, legend” banner that United fans unfurled in honour of Mark Clattenburg following some bizarre officiating in a 3-2 win for United in 2012 is testament to that.
But it’s hard to look past Atkinson’s performance in the past and all eyes will be on him on Sunday afternoon. Will he cost United the game again?