Blun­der ref was let down by his pals...

The Football League Paper - - CHRIS DUNLAVY - Chris Dunlavy A FRESH TAKE ON FOOT­BALL

AN HOUR af­ter the big­gest farce since Joe Kin­n­ear was un­leashed on St James’ Park, I stood at the mouth of the tun­nel ask­ing a stream of play­ers what the hell had just hap­pened.

“You tell me,” said a baf­fled Paul Dum­mett. Dwight Gayle shrugged his shoul­ders. Chris­tian Atsu just laughed. “Crazy,” he said. “No­body knew what was go­ing on.”

Mo­ments later, we all had our an­swer. A state­ment from PGMOL, the ref­er­ee­ing body, an­nounced that Keith Stroud had dropped an epic clanger.

Hav­ing dis­al­lowed Matt Ritchie’s 30th-minute penalty for en­croach­ment by Gayle, Stroud should have or­dered a re­take. In­stead, he bizarrely awarded Bur­ton an in­di­rect free-kick, in­ad­ver­tently det­o­nat­ing a mael­strom of fury and baf­fle­ment.

Thanks to that state­ment, we all know why Stroud suf­fered a “lapse in con­cen­tra­tion” and “mis­ap­plied” the rules. At the time, how­ever, con­fu­sion reigned.

Rafa Ben­itez, usu­ally about as emo­tional as a ce­ment mixer, turned puce and bounced around like Zebedee, fran­ti­cally ex­plain­ing the laws to an equally per­plexed fourth of­fi­cial.

Nigel Clough, clearly aware his team had got away with one, urged his play­ers to smash the free-kick up­field be­fore Stroud came to his senses.

Jour­nal­ists scoured twit­ter for re­plays and scram­bled to read the laws of the game. Had we all missed some sub­tle change to the en­croach­ment law?

Half-time of­fered even less clar­ity. Word fil­tered up from the dress­ing rooms that one New­cas­tle player had ac­costed Stroud in the tun­nel and been told that the free-kick was awarded for a foul by Gayle. A pre­pos­ter­ous sce­nario given that a) Gayle was miles from any Bur­ton player and b) the foul would need to be com­mit­ted in the split sec­ond be­tween Ritchie strik­ing the ball and it hit­ting the net.

In ret­ro­spect, you won­der whether Stroud con­cocted this story on the hoof in a des­per­ate bid to cover his back­side. Only he knows.

Pro­fes­sion­ally, the whole sorry cir­cus is a catas­tro­phe for Stroud. Had New­cas­tle lost, they could have de­manded a re­play. In 2005, a World Cup qual­i­fier be­tween Bahrain and Uzbek­istan was re-run af­ter an iden­ti­cal ref­er­ee­ing er­ror, as was a Spartan South Mid­lands League match be­tween Edg­ware and Hare­field 12 months later. The EFL de­mands a fi­nal say, but the prece­dent is strong. But, thank­fully, New­cas­tle did win. No­body died. In hind­sight, the whole thing was a mildly hi­lar­i­ous di­ver­sion from a drab match, so let’s not start treat­ing Stroud like a mur­derer. The bloke must be gut­ted. In fact, the real scorn should be re­served not for Stroud but for the two lines­man and a fourth of­fi­cial who failed to res­cue him. David Avent, Matthew McGrath and Tony Har­ring­ton all know the laws. All had a di­rect line to Stroud. Dur­ing those five min­utes of may­hem, couldn’t one have said ‘Lis­ten mate, I think you’ve had one here’? Even post-state­ment, that is the one mys­tery yet to be re­solved, though I think the an­swer may be fished from a mix­ture of peer pres­sure and con­fir­ma­tion bias. Hav­ing given Bur­ton a con­tentious free-kick, Stroud was nat­u­rally des­per­ate to hear any­thing that vin­di­cated his de­ci­sion, which, ac­cord­ing to one mem­ber of the New­cas­tle bench, is ex­actly what one lines­man pro­vided. Like ev­ery­thing on the night, this is all Chi­nese whis­pers and al­le­ga­tion. But if that lines­man did in­sist on a free-kick be­ing awarded, mis­guid­edly com­pelling Stroud to stick to his guns, that could ex­plain why the other two would fall silent or even ac­qui­esce. Even ju­nior pi­lots, plum­met­ing from the sky and ca­pa­ble of avert­ing cer­tain death, have been proven to shrink from ques­tion­ing a neg­li­gent su­pe­rior at the con­trols. Such is the power of se­nior­ity and con­fi­dently-ex­pressed cer­tainty. Could bet­ter train­ing pre­vent a re­peat? Pos­si­bly, but the set of cir­cum­stances are so rare and unique – and the con­se­quences so mi­nor – that it prob­a­bly isn’t worth it. Let’s just put it down as one of those foot­balling cu­riosi­ties, safe in the knowl­edge that ev­ery ref­eree in the land has just re­ceived a crash re­fresher course in penalty law.

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