Jim White

‘Tis the season to be paranoid

Jim White

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Roberto Martinez could be fostering a siege mentality at Wigan

It is that time of year, the time managers turn all seasonally paranoid. And while we might expect Mick McCarthy's hangdog expression to insist that the world is against him, it was more unexpected coming from the normally rational and calm Roberto Martinez.

But there was the Spaniard, after his side had received their customary spanking at Old Trafford, insisting that everything was stacked in the favour of the big sides.

Teams like Wigan, he insisted, arrived at places like the home of the champions with the equivalent of their hands tied behind their backs. Except when a ball flies in the direction of their hands, obviously, when suddenly the tethers are freed and it is deemed a clear handball.

And for once you got the feeling the Wigan manager's rant was not simply a diversionary tactic, to ward off inquisitive questioning about how a team claiming to be of Premier League quality were unable to muster a single shot against a central defence consisting, for much of the game, of Michael Carrick and Patrice Evra.

The decision of the referee Phil Dowd to expel Connor Sammon from the field of play for the kind of marginal use of the arm which under other circumstances would hardly have merited a foul did not do much to dispel the insistence that there is one rule for the big clubs and one for the small.

Particularly as, but a few minutes later, Dimitar Berbatov used similar wrestling tactics to fend off a defender in order to score a goal Dowd was happy to allow as legitimate.

Sure, the dismissal of Sammon is highly unlikely to have changed the result: Wigan were heading for their standard thrashing in Salford. For this to be considered a genuine Lancastrian derby, then it should involve two teams. Wigan have yet to register a goal at Old Trafford in their Premier League lives.

But the point still stands. It is not hard to believe that Sammon's most significant crime was not so much his attempt to palm off Carrick. It was to be lining up on the wrong side.

According to the likes of Martinez and McCarthy, referees are institutionally inclined to favour the big teams. The suggestion is of a kind of unspoken conspiracy to further their interests.

You might not think United, City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest are in need of an official leg up, they have all the advantages of finance, support and playing resources as it is. Plus, if you spoke to any of their managers - particularly the active conspiracy theorist in charge at Anfield - the idea that they were gifted any support from authority is laughable.

Yet the statistics seem to support the underdog view: in terms of penalties and dismissals, they are operating in a different league from the big boys.

There is, of course, another way of looking at it. When a team like Wolves take on Arsenal, or Wigan play United, the traffic is invariably one-directional. The big team does the attacking, home or away. The smaller side has to defend. Its players are under pressure. They put in more tackles, make more clearances.

While the big boys dribble, they block. While the celebrities weave their magic, they are obliged by circumstance to muzzle, to shield, to destruct everything their opponents try to construct. The inevitable corollary of that is that they put themselves in positions more likely to test a referee's judgement.

It is them sliding in on an advancing forward in the penalty area, it is them making last-ditch clearances on the line with a part of their body which may well appear to be their hand, it is them jostling and pushing and shoving. In the lottery of the game, they are constantly drawing the high numbers. Unfair it may be, a conspiracy it isn't.

Still, you can see why the managers are drawn to the idea that they are hapless victims of circumstance. If nothing else, it makes a good excuse.

My team isn't hopeless, my tactics aren't flawed, my motivational efforts are not lame to the point of non-existent: it is all the fault of them. They have it in for us. There is nothing we can do about that, is there?

Except move to a bigger club. And the way the results are going right now, that is never going to happen.

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