Issue …starring Stuart Attwell

As told by Jason Mckeown

The final scoreline at Christie Park failed to do this fierce encounter justice. Despite the best efforts of the 25 Morecambe and Bradford City players involved over the 90 minutes, it was the guy we’re not supposed to notice who carried the weightiest influence on the outcome.

Referee Stuart Attwell came, blew his whistle frequently and seemingly did his utmost to ensure everyone’s attention stayed firmly focused on the man in blue. Perhaps he was a little peeved off that the ticket stubs had advertised a football match between The Shrimps and The Bantams, rather than his star appearance.

The most telling moment in a truly wretched display of refereeing came 14 minutes from the end when City striker Gareth Evans quickly latched onto home keeper Barry Roche’s failure to grasp hold of a loose ball by challenging for possession. Succeeding in diverting it further from the keeper’s palms, Evans attempted but failed to turn the ball into an empty net as defenders rushed into help clear the ball, Attwell blew his whistle for a foul and raced over to dish a red card to a stunned Evans. Given Roche had failed to securely claim the ball, the decision to rule Evans’ harrying attempts illegal was badly-judged at best. The pathetic subsequent claims of injury from Roche, who began rolling around the floor in apparent agony only to make a miraculous recovery within seconds, should not escape condemnation either.

Attwell’s view of the incident was hardly as good as the 1,000+ City fans behind Roche’s goal, but there can be no excuse for charging in to issue the red card without taking any time to seize up the situation. One can only expect City to be successful in contesting such a ridiculous decision and for Evans to be in action at Northampton on Saturday. If anyone should be serving a suspension, the FA might consider dishing one to a referee with a reputation for high-profile mistakes.

Indeed the validity of Attwell’s ability to referee professional football is highly questionable. A year ago he made headlines as the youngest referee to officiate a Premiership match at a time when the FA’s Respect campaign was in its infancy.  With a national shortage of referees, Attwell’s meteoric rise was a good PR story, but a series of incidents – look here, here and here for just a flavour – have attracted media coverage of a different kind. Through no fault of his own, perhaps, Attwell seems to have become a minor celebrity in a football world of big egos. One can imagine him readily volunteering to appear on the next Celebrity Big Brother so the nation can see what a great guy he really is, all the while telling himself not to issue a red card to Lindsay Lohan.

Certainly the manner in which Attwell strutted around Christie Park offered strong hints of a self-belief we’d turned up only to watch him referee. In a lively contest which both sides enjoyed spells of domination, one of the biggest concerns was the timing between Attwell suddenly awarding every decision to one side and their periods on top. Morecambe started the game brightly, receiving a number of highly-dubious free kicks along the way. City progressively got better and were on top for the final 10 minutes in particular, by which time it was the Morecambe supporters’ turn to be exasperated by the number of decisions which went against their team. Lee Bullock was bizarrely booked for a harmless trip on a home player on the quarter hour mark, but a number of stronger challenges from both sides then went unpunished by way of a card until Wayne Curtis’ awful lunge tackle on 72 minutes. It was a night of  refereeing inconsistencies.

When the whistle wasn’t in Attwell’s mouth, both sides produced some decent football, with the shot and corner count backing up the feeling the Bantams had the better of the game. Phil Jevons rattled the bar early on and their two wingers posed some tough questions of Jonathan Bateson – caught out a little to often but continuing to look dangerous when attacking – and Luke O’Brien. With former Bantam Paul Mullin always a threat in the air and others hungry to latch onto his knock downs, it was a testing night for Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams, who both looked largely assured.

City’s midfield three continued to look effective and managed to control the middle of the park for lengthy periods. Bullock’s performance is especially commendable given the early caution left him walking a thin line, while Michael Flynn bossed proceedings and was the engine behind many attacks. It was in the final third of the field that City were not at their sharpest, with many promising moves spoiled by a poor final pass or a lack of conviction to shoot early which afforded home defenders the time to close down space. James Hanson was not as effective as he can be, but still won more than his share of headers. Evans battled hard and saw a cross-shot bounce off the bar.

After Morecambe had again come quickly out the blocks after the interval, City began to assume control with territorial advantage and corners and free kicks piling up. Scott Neilsen continues to impress and was a useful outlet for quickly turning defence into attack, with some teasing runs threatening to leave defenders tied in knots. The best chance came after a James O’Brien corner was met well by Evans, but his header was fired straight at Roche to make a point blank save he knew little about.

And after Evans and Roche’s clash which saw the Bantams reduced to ten men with a quarter of an hour to play, Roche piled further frustration on City with two brilliant saves to keep out efforts from Luke O’Brien – following an excellent surge forward – and Neilsen, the latter should probably have scored. With his every touched booed by away supporters, the subsequent repeated announcements Roche was the sponsor’s man of the match came across as a somewhat pathetic attempt by Morecambe to ‘send us home in a tantrum‘.

As four minutes of injury time was indicated, painful memories of previous late agony at Christie Park came flooding back; but Simon Eastwood was on hand to make a solid tip over from Mullin’s header to earn a first away clean sheet of the season. It also meant no one had been able to break the deadlock and thus make the morning headlines.

Stuart Attwell will be delighted.