Issue The wrong type of match winner

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Team

Lenny Pidgley | Zesh Rehman, Rob Kiernan, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Tom Adeyemi, David Syers, Tommy Doherty, Lee Hendrie | Omar Daley, Jason Price | Evans (for Daley), Osborne (for Hendrie)

With little to separate two very good League Two sides, the likelihood that one mistake would settle this contest grew as the minutes ticked by. Yet it wasn’t any of the 21 players left on the field who were to ultimately determine this outcome, but the man who was supposed to ensure it was a fair contest.

Mick Russell capped a truly appalling refereeing display with a moment of confusion which allowed Wycombe to take advantage of Bradford City hesitation and Kevin Betsy to tap home a loose ball.

Only seconds earlier, the linesman had flagged for a Wycombe free kick which the City players stopped and waited to be taken – with the fouled home player lying on the ground apparently needing treatment. But Matt Bloomfield continued charging into the area – to everyone’s confusion – and attempted to take the ball around Lenny Pidgley. After City’s keeper tripped up the home striker, Betsy struck. The fact other Wycombe players had also stopped and the home crowd was at first quiet as Bloomfield raced forwards summed up the confusion.

City’s players were left fuming and they surrounded both the referee and linesman. There will be two arguments against their complaints – firstly Russell will have claimed he played advantage in allowing Bloomfield to run through. Fair point usually; but during an erratic display Russell had shown bizarre levels of inconsistency in the application of the advantage rule.

Twice during the first half, for example, City had been on the attack and fouled by a home player, but were still in possession and able to continue. Frustratingly, Russell stopped the game to lecture the players who’d produced fouls, rather than allowing City’s momentum to continue. It is therefore understandable why they would assume a free kick for Wycombe in a similar situation would result in the same pausing of the match.

The other argument, the old “play to the whistle”, is also worth pondering. No doubt Russell will have argued back to fuming City players that he had not blown his whistle to confirm the linesman’s flagging up of the free kick, so they were at fault for assuming. But still there was no obvious gesture he was playing advantage, and so City can feel justified in their complaints they had stopped the game believing it was a home free kick.

Only after Russell had finished arguing the ‘goal’ over with Pidgley and Zesh Rehman – the latter receiving a booking for the level of his protest – did the Hertfordshire referee bother to talk to his linesman. As the pair were locked in conversation, the possibility that the goal would be disallowed temporarily flickered. Yet having got this far, such an admission of error would have been horrendously embarrassing. Whether or not Russell still believed he was right, it was easier to continue the game with Wycombe a goal ahead.

Such incompetence was in keeping with display that saw Russell enrage almost every person inside Adams Park at some point over the 90 minutes. Former Wycombe midfielder Tommy Doherty was sent off on the hour for reacting badly to a strong challenge from Gareth Ainsworth. A fair decision, but when minutes later Wycombe’s Dave Winfield pushed Jason Price in the face after producing a crude challenge on Omar Daley, but only received a yellow card, the double standards were again there for all to see.

It wasn’t that Russell was biased, it wasn’t even a case that he was influenced by pressure from home fans. He was just an appalling referee who made a series of bad decisions against both teams, and it just so happened the random pattern to his decision-making was to cause the Bantams to lose the game. He could just have easily have made poor decisions that led to an away win. And there above all was the frustrating factor. A good referee is supposed to go unnoticed, a bad referee like Russell has such a strong influence he actually determines who wins.

The real problem with referees in general is the incredible variety of standards. Week-by-week, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. In one match the referee will let everything go, in another the official will issue 12 yellow cards. Today we saw a number of  well-timed tackles deemed as fouls, while some awful challenges went unpunished. Midway through the first half David Syers was charging forward on the counter attack with just one defender for company. He was crudely barged over, only for the referee to wave play on. 10 minutes later Syers won a free kick when he was fairly tackled. Just what was the basis for such inconsistent decisions?

When Russell wasn’t misjudging incidents, a very good game of football was threatening to break out. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been here a few seasons now and are over the culture shock, but this year the standard of League Two seems stronger. Wycombe looked another excellent side who liked to pass the ball on the deck and produce attractive football, if physical at times in their approach.

The Chairboys began the game well, despite Daley forcing a good save out of keeper Nikki Bull in the opening two minutes. Manager Gary Waddock appeared to have had City well-scouted and his players attempted to isolate full backs Rehman and Luke O’Brien by doubling up on them when attacking. The battle between the wily Ainsworth and O’Brien was especially enthralling, with City’s home-grown defender yet again performing admirably.

Taylor had to work on getting wide players Tom Adeyemi and Lee Hendrie to be more central with Tommy Doherty and David Syers, to cut the supply line. Eventually Ainsworth was withdrawn to a more deeper central role, such was City’s success in blocking Wycombe’s tactics.

And by that stage City had grown from a tentative start to give as good as they got. Daley was again a real handful and caused all kinds of problems in his free role. Price, in for the absent James Hanson, was his usual consistently strong self and did the ugly things very effectively. Clear cut chances were limited for both sides – a magnificent Pidgley save from Stuart Beavon’s header the best opening for either side – but a few close efforts from Daley and five successive corners underlined City’s attacking threat. A strong City penalty appeal was also turned down, naturally.

The pattern continued into the second half; but as easy on the eye as the one touch football from both sides was, this was a game where defences remained largely on top. It may not have been a happy return to Wycombe for Doherty and Taylor, but Luke Oliver enjoyed another outstanding display and produced a number of superb tackles and interceptions. Alongside him on-loan Watford defender Rob Kiernan made his debut – remarkably the 11th defender used by City already this season – and impressed with his reading of the game and comfortableness on the ball.

Doherty’s sending off gave Wycombe a man advantage for the final third of the game, but with Gareth Evans and Leon Osborne brought off the bench to double up as wide midfielders who could support now-lone striker Price when City had the ball, the threat of City making the break-through was just as strong as Wycombe. That is until referee Russell made his final decisive contribution.

City struggled to chase the game effectively in the final stages, with Wycombe’s extra man advantage obvious for the first time as they comfortably retained possession. Yet in the first minute of stoppage time Adeyemi almost equalised after his late surge into the box and powerful effort was tipped behind by Bull. They were not able to use the remaining three overtime minutes to muster another meaningful attack.

So defeated, but not exactly beaten. Taylor will take on board certain lessons, but unlike City’s other seven league losses this season this wasn’t down to self-inflicted failings. The two up-coming home games against Macclesfield and Accrington offer the opportunity to continue the ascent up the league table, though they and the trip to Aldershot will have to be navigated without the growing influence of Doherty.

Whatever happens in those games, it’s to be hoped it will be left to the players on the field to determine the outcomes.