MIKE HOPPER

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FOOTBALL

CONTENTIOUS ISSUES

STUART ATWELL
By Mike Hopper
28 09 10

Have you ever wondered why controversy follows some people around? There's perhaps a temptation to say that the person concerned is unlucky, but in each individual instance it's nearly always possible to pinpoint specific reasons for the accidents that continue to befall them.

I can't recall however, such a scenario surrounding a topflight referee anything like as much as it does Stuart Atwell. From disallowed goals to gifted penalties; sending off the wrong person; even gifting a goal which hit the side netting.

So it was fascinating to watch the hitherto youngest referee in the premiership (He's just lost that standing to Michael Oliver) in action at Anfield on Saturday in what ought to have been a fairly straightforward game. But there was no way that was going to be the case, was there?

And almost immediately it was easy to see what the problem was. Everything about the guy smacked of a whistle-happy bossy boots out there. It was as if he carried with him an inferiority complex so great he felt obliged to overreact to every relatively trivial situation.

An awful lot has been made about the first Liverpool goal and I must confess that I sat utterly bemused as events panned out in front of me. But regardless of what differing opinions are held on the matter, the fact is that only one person, Sunderland's Michael Turner, truthfully knows what was in his head at the moment he back-heeled the ball towards his keeper. The likes of you and I could argue over and over about it, but the truth is we don't know. Though, realistically it was surely a very daft thing to do having been directed to a specific spot by Mr Atwell, who seconds earlier had brought the ball back from a more forward position.

But more significantly for me is the way he official persistently blew his whistle as he decided to consult his assistant. Harassed by at least five Sunderland players, he didn't look to cajole them, turn them away or even ignore them; instead he simply kept on blowing his whistle quite freakishly.

I was led to believe that the way of the modern day referee is to adopt a low profile and I've noticed increasingly how the senior referees stay calm in 95% of situations. They use the whistle minimally and then for effect; a short peep for an innocuous foul; a long hard blast when it's a serious offence; then a silence, creating a pause while they can get discreet advice through the earpiece from their assistants and even the fourth official.

Contrast that to Atwell, who displayed the demeanour of a sergeant major storming around the pitch with an authority which was utterly over the top. By half time it was clear that players on both sides simply couldn't predict the man. Every referee has his own style but from the moment the name is announced, the players invariably know what to expect. However, in the case of one or two, that does not follow and any spectator will tell you the game is readily ruined as a spectacle by such a man. Atwell is following in the footsteps of Uriah Rennie (who's now retired) and Lee Mason, who are similarly unpredictable.

Last season Steve Bennett and Alan Wylie couldn't have been more different in their approach to games but beforehand the players knew what to expect and consequently the game itself, for the most part, wasn't affected. And let's face it, Bennett was forever the stern-faced official and not especially liked. But by the same token he still kept a calm aura of authority about him, rarely engaging in argument or dialogue or belittling players. Stuart Atwell went about his job on Saturday like somebody who felt he had something to prove and forgot the fact that while his job was to control the game, he also had a responsibility (along with the players) to ensure the match was played out as a spectator sport; as an entertainment. Generally speaking the players did their best, but as I watched the game unfold, increasingly their frustration was spilling over, not because of each other in combat, but due to an official who didn't have their respect and used the whistle far more than he ought - a bit like a foreign referee who had a language problem. They didn't know what he would blow for next. It's almost as if he was looking for things to happen instead of letting the game flow; I could never see him as a person who'd admit he was wrong and change his mind and I can see why the non-goal he gave at Reading was allowed to stand.

In very simple terms, Stuart Atwell is not up to the job. His man-management was awful. There are those who say he'll get better with experience. Perhaps, but in order to do that he will have to change his whole demeanour and I just wonder if he's got it within himself to do that.

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