Early Doors: Mistakes don't just happen at Old Trafford

Early Doors

Eurosport

Michael Oliver is one of the best referees in the Premier League. He may only be 27 years old, but he has risen through the divisions on merit to the point where he is now a fully-fledged FIFA official.

The son of another Football League official, Oliver was part of Newcastle United's academy as a young player before becoming a professional man in the middle.

His age and the fact that he played the game within the system at a top club perhaps explains why he seems able to communicate well with the hotheads and egos in the Premier League – even those several years his senior - but always maintains a calm authority as he does so.

The Northumberland official set a string of records en route to usurping Stuart Attwell as the top flight's youngest ever referee. He became the youngest man to take charge of matches in the Conference and Football League before finally making his Premier League bow at St Andrew's as Birmingham hosted Blackburn in August 2010.

He is also the first ref to award a penalty and show a red card at the new Wembley Stadium, in Morecambe's 2006-07 Conference play-off final victory over Exeter City.

The spot-kick may have been a stonewall foul and the red card was for a 90th-minute headbutt, but it was the first of many occasions on which the young official showed himself unafraid to make the big calls - and make them correctly.

Last night, unfortunately, was not one of them.

With a significantly under-par Manchester United team labouring towards a 1-0 home win over Fulham, Cottagers skipper Danny Murphy burst into the box as the second half ticked over into stoppage time. The veteran midfielder has scored the winning goal in three separate 1-0 victories at Old Trafford during his time, and looked like he would have the chance to level for Fulham when Michael Carrick clipped him.

However, Oliver did not see it that way, and waved play on in the belief that Carrick had made a perfectly-timed challenge. Murphy burying his face in the Old Trafford turf said it all.

Fulham boss Martin Jol was not shy in criticising Oliver. He said after the match: "It needed a brave decision because it was either a dive and he should book someone or he has to give Carrick a red card. I don't want to see Carrick sent off but it needed a brave decision and I think it was a penalty kick."

Even Alex Ferguson admitted Fulham were unfortunate, but heavily qualified his sympathies.

"They had a claim," he said. "But the referee was a bit lenient when we had a claim for a penalty in the first half for handball. Patrice Evra thought it was a stone-waller. Maybe that has swayed the referee because Michael Carrick caught Danny Murphy's heel as he came back and it could have been a penalty."

When Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart saved James McCarthy's drilled shot with an outstretched leg in January's 1-0 win at Wigan, it felt like a potentially title-deciding moment. Sadly, for reasons of someone's erring rather than brilliance, Carrick's reprieve last night feels like another. With just eight games to go and United now three points clear of City at the top of the table, it could prove to be decisive.

Just as good goalkeepers are mostly remembered for their clangers, the reputation of many a good referee is forever sullied once they give a controversial decision, especially if it is one in United's favour.

No doubt we can look forward to a glut of Photoshopped images of Oliver in a United shirt, poor jokes about the Northumberland official being missing from the Red Devils line-up through injury or him being on Fergie's payroll. At least it will make a break from those tired jibes directed at Howard Webb, who remains the best referee in the country, fully deserving of his spots in charge of both the Champions League and World Cup finals in 2010.

In a vain attempt to try and assuage the inevitable ref-based 'banter', Early Doors will remind you of United's defeat at Molineux in February of last season. Not long after Wolves had equalised on 10 minutes to make the score 1-1, defender Christophe Berra cynically blocked Nemanja Vidic's run to meet a corner inside the box. The officials declined to award a penalty to United and Wolves went on to win 2-1, ending United's hopes of going through the season unbeaten. The referee that evening was Oliver.

His incorrect call last night is further proof that referees will always make mistakes, but they could do so at any ground, not just at Old Trafford.

However, the rarity with which such important calls are made incorrectly in recent times shows that the standard of officiating has improved dramatically since the advent of professionalism. Think hard: how many times has a team been genuinely robbed of a result because of an awful decision by a referee? It really isn't that many, is it?

Oliver is one of the most promising young members of this new era, doing a thankless job in which his name is only ever mentioned on the rare occasion he gets something wrong.

As he said himself back in 2009: "Only afterwards, if I get a decision wrong... is age mentioned. It isn't just a wrong decision, it's an incorrect decision from a 24-year-old."

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Grief junkies run riot... 'Is he dead?'... 'I've Tweeted my condolences just in case'... 'Good mourning!'" – Manchester United fanzine Red Issue tries to make a point with a Private Eye-style front cover of their latest edition, featuring a picture of paramedics treating Fabrice Muamba on the White Hart Lane pitch. The Trotters return to Tottenham this evening for the rearranged FA Cup fixture with Muamba still classified as in a critical condition. Not cool.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I don't feel like taking any action. I don't see how Ranieri is to blame." - Internazionale president Massimo Moratti, March 14 2012.

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"President Massimo Moratti and Inter Milan thank Claudio Ranieri and his staff for their professionalism, dedication and sincerity in recent months at the helm." – Inter club statement announcing Ranieri's sacking, March 26 2012.

COMING UP: A whole glut of live football action to enjoy this evening. In the Champions League it's Benfica v Chelsea and APOEL Nicosia v Real Madrid, in the FA Cup it's Sunderland v Everton and Tottenham v Bolton and in the championship there are live updates from five games. All matches kick off at 19:45.

Away from football there's live coverage of Sri Lanka v England in the cricket, the latest matches from the China Open snooker and the Miami Masters tennis.

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