How Ex-Ref Poll Lifted Lid on Myth of Man U “Dominance” – by Rob Atkinson

Ferguson: intimidation

Ferguson: intimidation

As a Leeds United fan, the twenty year period between the start of the Premier League era and the departure from Man U of Alex Ferguson was for me a two-decades long spell of misery and disillusionment, relieved only by occasional peaks when some other team got a chance at the game’s major honours.

Man U monopolised the action to an extent unprecedented in modern history; to an extent, what’s more, unheralded even by their own respectable record prior to 1993. It was as if, with the inception of the Murdoch-backed elite top flight, a switch had been thrown to activate a Man U winning machine and reduce all rivals to the status of also-rans.

It was a modern phenomenon – but, as it now turns out, it was all a myth, all smoke and mirrors. This was aptly summed up by the present-day Man U struggling, with most of the same personnel and all the same financial advantages, against League Two basement boys Cambridge United. This was the reality masked by that twenty year bubble. Man U are relatively ordinary – the Taggart years were a myth. What we were watching over those two decades was nothing more than an over-long retelling of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – and we’re now some way past the part where the clear-sighted little boy has blown the gaff.

Thousands upon thousands of pissed-off football fans could tell you their own tale of a refereeing injustice sustained by their team, to the benefit of Man U. I have a variety of my own where Leeds United have been denied – a penalty given two yards outside the area at the Gelderd End, the disallowing of a Wes Brown own goal (for offside!), the failure to dismiss Man U keeper Fabien Barthez after he had conceded a penalty so crudely that it had had to be given – only for him to remain ludicrously undismissed and poised in goal to save the spot kick when he should have been taking an early bath.

Many other clubs will have similar anecdotal evidence. Tottenham’s “goal” at the Theatre of Hollow Myths, two yards over the line but not given, Barnsley’s non-awarded penalty at the Beckford End when the foul was so blatant that even the commentators swore it should have been awarded.  There are many, many more. It’s happened time and again, over the whole history of the Premier League.  A notorious statistical study found that, over an extended period of time, 87% of all fifty-fifty decisions went the way of the Pride of Devon.  In a game of fine margins, as any top-level professional sport is, that is a deeply damning statistic – and it makes a vital difference.

Over this whole period, naturally, official reassurances and denials of the obvious were as bland and unctuous as they were patronising and insulting to the intelligence of fans everywhere.  The media were complaisant in this, and the commercially-driven circus travelled on. At any slight sign of rebellion or disagreement with the party line, Ferguson himself would make a choleric proclamation; damning whichever referee had failed to decide in his team’s favour, or pouring Govan bile over whichever media organisation had dared think the unthinkable, or presumed to print heresy. One of the most familiar of radio sports headlines was “The FA have confirmed that Alex Ferguson will face no further action over [insert blatant transgression of rules here]”. It was tiresome, it was depressing – but it was the norm and, over time, a weary acceptance crept in that this is how our game now was.

Graham Poll - admission

Graham Poll – admission

Sooner or later, though, there was bound to be someone intimately involved with all of this, who would finally break ranks and confirm what we always knew: namely that two decades of unprecedented success have been founded upon bullying and intimidation to influence the game’s authorities both on and off the field, and to ensure a smooth passage in the print and broadcast media.  Then, finally, ex-referee Graham Poll came out in print and admitted how it was to be officiating in that era when Fergie’s word was law and referees (together with their support officials and governing body) were under immense pressure to rule on matters in a manner favourable to Man U.

“All the refs wanted in a Man U game,” said Poll, “was to get the match over, without having made any controversial decisions against Fergie’s boys – and ideally with Man U having won.”

Damning stuff, straight from the horse’s mouth. Again, we’re back to those fine margins. At the top level of any sport, it doesn’t take much to destroy the balance upon which depends true competition to ensure a reasonably level playing field.  It turns out that the playing field was as skewed as Yeovil’s legendary sloping pitch of giant-killing memory.  But at least at Yeovil, both teams got to play with the slope for half a game each.  Poll’s evidence is that the slope was in favour of Man U for 90 minutes plus however many were needed to ensure the “right” result.  Man U have won all those Fergie years honours with the aid of loaded dice.  So much in control of the game were they, it redounds to their shame that they didn’t win absolutely everything, every year.

Don’t take it from me.  Why would you?  I’m a Leeds fan with my own instinctive dislike and contempt for that over-blown club, that media-inflated false legend built on a well-marketed tragedy.  But just think back over all those incidents going back all those years.  Look at the watershed of the Premier League being founded – how the game was suddenly all about commercial interests, flogging satellite dishes and replica shirts.  Look where the biggest market was – all those plastic Man U fans in Devon and Cornwall, all of those merchandise-hungry fanatics who never saw a match day but shelled out for tacky Man U tat.  Look at the record of the Man U club prior to 1993 – seven titles in all their history.  And then 13 titles in twenty years after Murdoch bought the game and gift-wrapped it for Man U.  That’s quite a before and after picture, isn’t it?

The insistent pressure was extended beyond its mere effect on referees, too.  How many times have you seen Sky TV lingering lovingly over some Man U performance where the opposition simply caved in and rolled over to play dead?  And they’d win, 7-0, 9-0 even. Because they weren’t a bad team, and over the course of those twenty years they may well have won four or five titles, even if the game hadn’t been bent out of shape in their favour. See, I can be realistic about these matters. But ask any sports psychologist about the drip, drip, drip effect of relentless media propaganda. How many times do you need to be told you have no chance, before you begin to believe it? Teams went there psyched-out, expecting to lose, knowing they’d never get a penalty and would more than likely concede one or two and maybe end up with ten men too. Sometimes, they would even rest important players for a game they had a chance of winning a week later. They’d naturally sink to a defeat they acknowledged as inevitable, and Man U’s title rivals could do nothing but grind their teeth. And so the whole basis on which league football is predicated was blown out of the water, all to the inevitable benefit of Man U.  Fine margins and psychological edge – it doesn’t take much to warp the whole shooting match hopelessly out of shape.

What Graham Poll has done is to admit – in so many words – just what a relief it was to get off the pitch without having made any significant decision against a victorious Man U – because he knew what would follow as Ferguson would bitch about it in the press, and nobody would hold him to account.  There are plenty of examples of referees making the “wrong” decision, leading to the “wrong” result – and then not being awarded another high-profile game involving the Pride of Devon for literally months.  It was freely bandied about that this or that ref had been “banned” by Taggart. Meanwhile, the refs who “behaved themselves” – and we all know who they are – were regular fixtures at Old Trafford games, or in away matches featuring Man U.  It was all so frightfully, disgustingly cosy.

Now Ferguson has gone, and Poll – possibly tongue-in-cheek – was “worried” this time last year for the tyrant’s successor David Moyes.  He warned Moyes that he has “no chance” of pulling off the same kind of influence that he cheerfully and willingly admits Ferguson exerted over the game’s arbiters.  Some may well have noticed attempts on the part of the pitifully inoffensive Moyes to act like some Fergie clone, blustering his way into some pallid imitation of the Beast of Govan. But really, it was to very little avail.  And, inevitably, Moyes paid the price as Poll clearly foresaw. It just wasn’t the same for Man U without Ferguson to tyrannise the game, and still isn’t the same feeling under the almost equally baffled van Gaal, for whom the cracks are now starting to show in the shape of tetchiness and intolerance on camera. The Beast is gone – for the moment anyway – and with him has gone most of the edge of intimidation granted to Man U for so many years.

The thing is, this will come as news to not all that many people.  Figures within the media will profess astonishment and cynicism, preferring to dismiss even such compelling testimony as a storm in a teacup.  You still hear, week after week, commentators doing their best to sound surprised when another Man U foul goes unpunished, another good penalty shout goes un-awarded.  In tones of wonderment, they will observe “Well, the ref seemed to have a good view of that, I can’t quite understand why he’s not given it…”  Week after week, month after month, year after monotonous year.  But the fans know – and the fans, other than those with a vested interest and an armchair in Milton Keynes, will be totally unsurprised over those admissions of Graham Poll.  They will not be startled by what he has said – maybe just at the fact that he chose to say it. All of this has been so ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ over the Premier League era.  But the fans have known, alright.

It explains why, whenever a fan answers the question “who do you support” with “Man U” – and despite all those trophies, all that dominance – there is no gasp of respect, no acknowledgement of success.  It’s much more likely that they’ll be laughed at, and there’s no greater tragedy than that for what was once a name respected throughout world football – even if they HAD gone 25 years without the Title.  Ultimately, this will affect the way in which a famous club is regarded by history.  Nobody needs to tell a Leeds United fan about that – and there are more reasons to damn this United from just outside Manchester than there ever were to damn our own beloved United of Leeds.

It’s not clear why Graham Poll chose to come out and confirm what so many of us have known for so long.  Maybe it was a warning ahead of a possible return for Ferguson should even Louis van Gaal suffer Moyes’ fate and be cast adrift as the failures and defeats pile up. There is a precedent for this. Busby returned briefly when Wilf McGuinness, his hapless successor, found he’d inherited a poisoned chalice.  But that was 40-odd years ago and there was no Premier League to warp the game out of shape for pecuniary considerations. And Ferguson, it goes without saying, is no Sir Matt – he is unfit to lick Busby’s shoes, never mind fill them. Our game is far better off without his malign presence and influence.

Could Graham Poll, resentful of the pressure he had to work under as a ref for Man U games, be trying to warn the current batch of officials not to go back to their cowardly old ways if Ferguson DID make a comeback?  Could he belatedly be recognising where his duty to the game should actually be leading him?  One thing’s for sure: it’s out in the open now – and it’s the job of everyone with the interests of football and fair competition at heart to make sure that’s exactly how it stays.

34 responses to “How Ex-Ref Poll Lifted Lid on Myth of Man U “Dominance” – by Rob Atkinson

  1. This story is bullshit, Refs make decisions as they see fit, Chelsea has benefited much from these decisions, Ivanovic elbowed Benteke & wasnt sent off, he ended up scoring the winner against Aston Villa, a penalty against West brom & many other decisions that put the refs on the sportlight, Newcastle’s Anita cleared a goal bound hearder by Evra with his hand & no penalty given. Ican write a million paged book about refs decision that has benefited almost all clubs in EPL, so the the dominance if Man UTD has nothing to do with refs decisions


    • I take it this is a scum point of view.


      • Laughing at the sad attempt to justify more than 20 years of bias by naming one incident per club. It was going on long before introduction of the premier league.
        The awful thing for Leeds is that Wes Brown own goal. Had that been allowed, as it should if the laws of football are to be upheld, then Leeds would have qualified for that second season in the champions league and the financial problems might have never happened. This was before Chelsea won the lottery and the only clubs to qualify for consecutive champions leagues were Man U and Arsenal and it set them up for qualification every year


  2. Beautifully written article. Glad someone has the balls to say what everyone knows and point out the real reason why the same mediocre team that won the league last year are now losing games regularly.


  3. After Fergie retired there was an interview with ex ref Dermot O Leary where he said he gave a free kick to the opposition which led to a goal just before half time, he came out with phrases like ” Oh no, what have I done” and “I was dreading seeing him”. This just about summed it up for me. Fergie used to play mind games with the FA after matches to get his thugs of the hook, when players like Keane and Cantona would often cause criminal “tackles” and then be defended by him, so frustrating for the decent fan. Fergie time, some other managers so far up his arse they needed crow bars to get them out, Wolves going there with a second string team in the cup offering them the game on a plate, being allowed to boycott the FA cup that year giving players invaluable rest which other teams didn’t get (pictures of Shmichael on a beach in the Bahamas), Cantonna coming back from his lengthy ban totally refreshed and winning the title for them on his own when it was only fair that the ban should have gone til the end of the season, the ref backing off with the whole team in his face (mainly Keane) and the stadium baying for blood,imagine being on the opposite bench you’d be thinking ” we ain’t got a cat in hells chance here”.The list is endless, teams stood no chance with this dictator in charge.
    GREAT article again Rob.


  4. Maybe Nigel Clough should take over from Moyes and at his 1st training session tell the players to throw all their trophies in the bin! WE will forever be the ‘Last Champions’


  5. john palmer

    well said Rob my views as well, the other sickening point ishow many teams went to old Trafford happy to loose 2.0 before they kicked off


  6. ropey wyla

    Well Rob, despite your love of Grayson, I have to say this is a very well written article. Whilst it is an established fact that man u receive preferential treatment from referees, I honestly didn’t think it ran as deep as this. Very interesting read and I take my hat off to you


  7. is this from a club that cheated its way to a champions league semi final with money they could not afford.even the team of the 1970s never got any respect because of the way they cheated their way to the top with dirty tactics and win at any cost attitude.unfortunatly the west Yorkshire united will always live in the shadow of the Lancashire united


  8. Good man Rob. I may be repeating myself here but they literally got away with anything and everything,so if a ref chose to ignore or didn’t see an incident it was sure as hell not going to get referred to a disciplinary panel. It really sticks in my craw when the media fawn at the whiskey nosed tw-t and his band of cheats. I can remember vividly a certain gallic scum player stamping on the BACK of an opponent at both carrow road and on another occasion the County Ground. It goes without saying that no-one of any importance saw the incident at norwich(can’t remember the outcome of the swindon stamp though). Anyway,a possible spinal injury or broken rib is far worse than a bite on the ear. Due to the frenzied apathy on the part of refs when it came to penalizing them for what were often cases serious of gbh it was left to providence to intervene. Such divine intervention occurred during a failed attack on the achilles heel of Alfie Harland and the perpetrator/animal got their long overdue comeuppance. The next meeting betwixt the two ought to have resulted in at least a ten game ban for the animal,but of course it didn’t,couldn’t,wouldn’t, did it?


  9. I even see from your captions below don revie greatest ever manager,howard Wilkinson second in line,and billy bremner greatest ever skipper.the sad thing is I think you believe this.what about shankly busby paisley ferguson bobby robson clough etc for captains is bremner better than souness bryan robson roy keane bobby Charlton tony adams Patrick viera etc etc.leeds have and will always have a stigma attached to them.when you think of leeds united you remember the notorious dirty team of the 70s that bullied opponents and referees alike, you think of the infamous reputation of the fans, nothing good springs to mind


  10. Can’t think of a single criticism of this piece. Scum fans are so delusional though Rob that they won’t believe it, it’s pitiful really. The rest of us know that this is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Your hatred for Man U inspires me every day and I assure you, I help spread the message. You’re like Jesus, only your cause is so much more worthy ……. And true.


  11. Spot on Rob as per usual, hope the foul weather is leaving you alone. Summer here down under but the Ashes has been a bit of a disaster


  12. You hit the nail on the head with the pharse well-marketed tragedy , man u have been the media’s ‘pheoinx rising from the ashes’ since 1958 , in contrast, according to the same media , the Liverpool fans were robbing the dead during the tragedy of hillsbourgh and it took them 20yrs to be issued an apology.


  13. I can’t watch anymore of this wed game rob ,, Arrrgh , F***ing depressing


  14. Well that was disgusting,BM has lost my support now. Time to stand aside and at least give the new manager a few weeks of the window. There can’t be any apologists for a coach who plays 2 wingers and a sole little man up front. The board need to put up or shut up,no more crappy loan signings. Perhaps a link up with the san fransisco 69rs” is in order, if Haigh and co are having difficulty making both ends meet. Stewart and kebe are just extra embarrassment,indeed a Hull fan warned us that stewart just had the one trick and sure enough he did his step-overs and that was the extent of his contribution. Crap! Enough is enough.


    • In total agreement. Another blog last night was saying what a good week for Leeds it had been with the SF69ers link up and the signing of 2 PL players. I commented that I thought the total opposite. One: what we doing linking up with a team that predominantly wears Red and Two: the 2 players we have signed are not good enough for the PL that’s why they are heading back to the Championship. Kebe was good 2-3 years ago and I’ll reserve judgement on the other kid. Zaliuskas has gone backwards since he got the comfort of a contract, he was simply shocking today. And PLEASE don’t anyone come on here and tell us the future is bright because of the things that are happening off the pitch at this club. Just to add another point I notice the club website didn’t provide a result or report on the midweek game v Harrogate Town, my local club, that finished 3-1 to Town despite Leeds fielding a side including Hunt, Wootton, Drury, Warnock, Poleon, Ariyibi & Zac Thompson. Poleon scored in the 87th minute with Leeds already 3-0 down. Hey-ho its only the league leaders at ER next week, I’ll save my brass thanks


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  16. Hi Rob, apologies but just read the ‘Graham Poll’ article. Could not agree more; always believed Ferguson a mediocre manager and simply a bully – shame on the FA for being scared.
    Just to reinforce your hypothesis; consider MUFC’s lack of success outside FA jurisdiction. A quarter of a century in Europe and won twice (outplayed by B. Munich and win on pens v. Chelsea).
    Add the number of MUFC players sent off on international duty when FA would not censure the ref.
    You’re right in your article that this comes as no surprise to anyone really



    Brendan on. . . Just shut the f##k up please, you silly boy. Tha talks sh#te. Like all scummers if your IQ was 1 point lower, you’d be in a f##ckin plant pot. Sorry about that Rob, had to av a go at the tit. Great article as per.


  18. king sniffer

    A cathartic article if ever there was one Rob. All due credit to Graham Poll as well for speaking out about the years of subversive injustices that the media as a whole has seen fit to endorse!


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