If Steve Bruce is right and Wigan have reached the defining point in their season, their prospects are not as good as he had probably hoped. Last night, in a bad-tempered contest of two red cards, his side failed to score for the sixth time in eight games and surrendered an unbeaten home run that began in October. "Uefa Cup?" Bruce responded, with a bemused look when asked where the result left Wigan's ambitions. "Ask a silly question..."
But that was not the issue troubling the Wigan manager. Rather it was the performance of the referee, Stuart Attwell, he of the phantom goal and other oddities, whose policing of the game, in Bruce's view, reflected his lack of experience.
The 26-year-old official sent off West Ham's Carlton Cole after 37 minutes, having already booked him for bringing down Wigan's Michael Brown from behind. Cole's second offence – trying to use his foot to win a ball high enough for Wigan's Emmerson Boyce to go for with his head – was careless at worst.
The decision incensed West Ham, in particular Scott Parker, who had to be restrained from confronting Brown, who appeared to encourage the referee to take the action he did. Thereafter, Attwell was under pressure. Early in the second half, he showed West Ham's Lucas Neill only a yellow card for what Bruce described as a "horrific tackle" on Lee Cattermole, but then dismissed Cattermole for scything down Parker.
"I feel a bit sorry for him because in my opinion he – Mr Attwell – is not quite ready," Bruce said. "If he had used a bit of common sense, Carlton Cole should never have been sent off. But by doing that he has put himself under pressure and when it came to the big one – Neill's tackle on Cattermole – when a decision needed to be made, he has not done it. And that was the kind of challenge we need to stamp out."
Gianfranco Zola, the West Ham manager, was more sympathetic than Bruce towards Attwell's performance. "For me the red card for Carlton was too much, it was not a reckless challenge," he said. "But referees are human beings and I prefer to support them rather than criticise."
The dismissals overshadowed the quality of Cole's goal, his 10th of the season, scored three minutes before his red card after the match's best move, a slick exchange of one-touch passes involving Parker, Mark Noble and David di Michele, whose ball to Cole was curled beyond the reach of Chris Kirkland. "It was a great goal that deserved to win any match," Bruce said.
Certainly, Wigan had no answer to it. They had gone close twice in the early stages but once behind could find no way through. "It was a important win and we deserved it," Zola said. "We are in a position to go for a place in Europe and we will try to do it."
Zola said he hoped an injury to Jack Collison, West Ham's midfield prospect, would prove less serious than it appeared when he was carried off 15 minutes from time, having twisted his right knee.
Goal: Cole 34 (0-1).
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Melchiot, Boyce, Bramble (Watson, 77), Figueroa; Valencia, Brown (Scharner, 63), Cattermole, N'Zogbia; Zaki (Rodallega, 63), Mido. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Edman, Watson, Kapo, Sibierski.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Neill, Tomkins, Upson, Ilunga; Collison (Spector, 76), Kovac, Parker (Lopez, 87), Noble; Di Michele (Nsereko, 75), Cole. Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Payne, Stanislas, Sears.
Referee: S Attwell (West Midlands).
Booked: Wigan Valencia, Brown; West Ham Neill, Noble, Parker, Cole.
Sent off: Cole (37); Cattermole (52).
Man of the match: Parker.
Attendance: 14,169.Reuse content