After Saturday’s refereeing horror show, look who’s in town on Saturday…

As the dust settles on Saturday’s controversial refereeing display from Mick Russell, a referee will again be the centre of attention this weekend as Bradford City’s home game with Macclesfield is to be officiated by Stuart Attwell.

The youngest person ever to referee a Premier League match, Attwell has been ‘rested’ since officiating a 2-2 draw between Liverpool and Sunderland in September. That afternoon Liverpool scored in highly controversial circumstances, after Attwell had awarded Sunderland a free kick in their own half.  Mackems defender Michael Turner laid the ball back to keeper Simon Mignolet to take the free kick, only for Attwell to determine the kick had been taken and allow Liverpool to run through and score.

Attwell was dropped for making such a blunder, and has yet to referee a game since. We have the dubious pleasure of his return on Saturday.

The 26-year-old is well known for a series of errors, most famously awarding Reading a phantom goal in their game against Watford in 2008. His list of controversies is long, and City were the victims of his whistle-happy antics at Morecambe last season where a truly horrendous performance was capped off by a ridiculous sending off for Gareth Evans.

At least we’ve been warned what to expect.

So City v Macclesfield is the first tentative step back for apparently one of the country’s brightest referees. No doubt the Premier League spotlight will make its way to Valley Parade as the powers-that-be judge whether his break has enabled him to improve his decision-making – but it is worth questioning quite why any Football League match should be used as a testing ground for an inept Premier League referee.

One hopes that this will lead to a low-key afternoon without any major decisions; because despite the presence of a famous face, there should be no doubt who is not the star of the show on Saturday.

Weekend preview part two – I believe that Northampton vs Southampton is a local derby

Belief is a funny thing.

When I was a kid it was my belief that Northampton and Southampton was a local derby in the same way that Manchester City vs Chester City or West Ham vs West Brom was.

One former footballer – for example – believes that The Queen is secretly a lizard.

It is a curious view point but looking at how this ethereal thing that is belief rules footballers lives it is probably not hard how one could convince himself that what he decides is, is. The Bradford City team that lost 5-0 to Notts County trudged off the pitch believing they were going to struggle – one suspects they did – but that was the last home league reversal because the belief that courses through the veins has come from seven games without defeat.

The belief is now that Bradford City can go to somewhere like Northampton – as we do on Saturday – and win the match. Belief that is distinct from expectation levels. The players believe they are a good team, a team who deserved to win in the week against Morecambe in the week, thus they are a good team.

That is belief in football.

Disbelief in football was Tuesday night’s sending off of Gareth Evans which goes down as one of the poorest decisions in a Bradford City game ever. There are so many reasons why Stuart Attwell got the decisions wrong that to enumerate them is almost cruel – like pointing out the poor quality of a child’s painting compared to Mona Lisa – but while Attwell continues to foul up football matches his misunderstandings rather than his mistakes should be highlighted.

It is not that Attwell just saw the wrong thing – we could argue about what did or did not happen for eon – but it what he choice to do with the offence he perceived. Evans and Morecambe goalkeeper Barry Roche both contested a ball outside the penalty area. When dealing with goalkeepers the rules of football are based around exceptions so they do not state “A goalkeeper can handle the ball in the box” but rather “no player can handle the ball aside from the goalkeeper in the box”.

They are written this way to ensure that the goalkeeper – once he leaves his box – is not treated any differently from any other player. Watch the Evans/Roche again and imagine the Morecambe player is not a goalkeeper and try picture a situation where it would be a red card.

Evans goes in to the challenge from the front and with a single foot sliding along the floor. It is not violent conduct for sure – that covers punching and headbutting – and it is almost impossible to interpret it as serious foul play which covers things such as two footed tackles. Once again imagine the tackle between outfield players.

So either Stuart Attwell thinks that Evans’s slide was some serious foul play – and if he did then he missed many similar red cards in the game – or he saw that a goalkeeper was involved and decided to ignore the rules of football he is there to apply. Or he did it for some other reason tied into the fact that he is the sort of Referee that gives goals when the ball does not go in the net but he has a belief it did.

The Attwell’s rubbish – which is what the red card incident should be known as – means that Gareth Evans will not be eligible to play against Northampton, Notts County in the Cup or Crewe at home on the following Saturday and frankly the only reason I can see what the club is not screaming to the rafters to have the decision overturned is out of a fear of a Red Riding style corruption that haunts Refereeing.

Jim Gannon said that because his Stockport County side showed up a Referee they were victimised and City’s dealings with Joe Ross seemed to start a good few years of frankly bizarre Refereeing that included a five match ban for Dean Windass for being cheeky. Indeed The Owl and The Badger of the corrupt West Yorkshire Police of Peace’s novels would find it hard to justify that incident where accused was not allowed to speak in his defence and the only witness was the case for the prosecution.

I digress. Maybe appealing is City not making waves and maybe in the long run that is the right thing to do. Certainly I would not trust the FA, the Referees or the appeal process. That is my belief.

I have another belief though which may not be given much regard by most but as Evans sits out and Michael Boulding returns to the side I utter my belief that Boulding is – well – not that useful.

We are told he works tirelessly but Evans and Hanson’s graft put the signing from Mansfield Town to shame. We are told he is a goalscorer but the evidence of last season suggests that Boulding’s big goal tally for Mansfield came from attacking on the break which City seldom get to do with deep sitting defences. If the Bantams play a certain way Boulding will bang them in – or so I’m told – but players who force a single way of playing from the ten men around them always make me think of Ashley Ward and that is never a good thing.

None of which to say that Boulding is not a good player just that he is not as useful as Evans is and as he is paired with James Hanson in the forward line City lose the strength and effort they would have had and gain a forward who occasionally does something superb but often, well, does not. The current Bantams squad is made of consistent performers of which Evans is a leading light.

Also leading is Michael Flynn who with Lee Bullock and James O’Brien form a midfield that protects the defensive line which has not conceded in 180 minutes and as Scott Neilson beds into the side there is a bursting power out of the middle.

The backline sees Jonathan Bateson continue to deputise for Simon Ramsden – no goal past the defence in the 180 minutes Bateson has started says much about the unit Stuart McCall has assembled – while Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien seem to be shaping into the best Bantams defence in ten years.

Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is improving too. That is belief again.

…starring Stuart Attwell

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.

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