When Gary Megson was asked what was the worst decision he had endured in football the Bolton Wanderers manager employed humour. "Mike Walker once brought me off 10 minutes before the end," he replied, pausing for effect. "And the big mistake was I should have come off an hour earlier."
He was being diplomatic to protect his bank balance. If Megson had truly let rip he might as well have opened a direct debit to divert his salary straight to the Football Association. Instead, he was collected, even dignified. In the new atmosphere of respect for officials, he was even forgiving.
"I don't see the sense of sending a referee to a lower level for one game," Megson added. "It's just symbolic and helps nobody. The officials need help so that we don't get into the situation where managers, players, everyone concerned is going on about one incident. We have spent the last 45 minutes talking about a cataclysmic cock-up."
The "cock-up" in question was the penalty that Rob Styles awarded that turned the match. Jlloyd Samuel made a clean contact on the ball when he tackled Cristiano Ronaldo and the referee was 10 yards away with an unhindered view, yet he saw a foul invisible to 75,000 others. Even Ronaldo, who makes more appeals than Bob Geldof, did not bother. "It was a poor, poor decision," Megson moaned.
Megson called for television replays to help referees and even the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, conceded that he had been "surprised" at the decision. He did not mention that must have been relieved, but with an hour gone his side was stalling against Bolton's five-man midfield and, but for Styles' intervention, United could have gone into tomorrow night's Champions League match against the Danish side Aalborg with only one Premier League win to their names.
The penalty changed that and Wayne Rooney, who was kept on the bench for 70 minutes with Aalborg in mind, embellished the scoreline with an exquisite goal 13 minutes from the end. The result was unforgiving for Bolton, whose Fabrice Muamba, had missed the best chance of the first half; it also flattered United.
One of the surprises of last season was how they won a double without an out-and-out striker. Now, having spent £30m to get one in Dimitar Berbatov, Ferguson not only has the problem of trying to keep Rooney and Carlos Tevez happy but the team are struggling to get goals. This was the first time they had scored more than once in the Premier League.
Ferguson said that his players needed to learn how to bring out the best in his new striker. "When we understand how good Berbatov is we'll improve," he said. "You don't need to pass to him into space all the time, you can pass to him when he's marked – he's brilliant at that."
Megson, too, succumbed to near awe. "To have to face Berbatov, Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo on the same pitch is incredible. That's got to be as good, and I would suggest better, as anything in the world. Whoever finishes above United, if anyone does, is really going to have to go some."
In theory you would agree. In practice, the parts have been greater than the whole.
Goals: Ronaldo pen (60) 1-0; Rooney (77) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo (Nani, 80), Fletcher, Anderson (Scholes, 71), Park; Tevez (Rooney, 71), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Amos (gk), Giggs, O'Shea, Evans.
Bolton Wanderers (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, A O'Brien, Samuel; Davies, Nolan, McCann, Muamba, Gardner (Smolarek, 73); Elmander (Vaz Te, 66). Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Taylor, J O'Brien, Riga, Shittu.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Booked: Bolton Elmander, McCann, Davies.
Man of the match: Ronaldo.
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