Sport Comment: Referee Oliver proved his pedigree

Tensions have typified clashes between Manchester United and Arsenal down the years
IN a season when the FA Cup’s mojo has been well and truly rediscovered, it was good to see two of the giants of the English game turn it on the other night.

Manchester United-Arsenal was a snorter but I had to chuckle when the TV millions were exhorted to vote for their man of the match.

For me, the man who was head and shoulders the top performer on the park did not even make the short-list. Step forward, Michael Oliver.

Yes, Oliver… the 30-year-old referee. Can you remember a better, braver, more composed or even-handed performance than the one he delivered? He was magnificent and did so much to contribute to the game being the spectacle it was.

Consider the circumstances: the fixture… United and Arsenal has a history of intense pressure and indiscipline. Keown and Van Nistelrooy; Pizzagate; Keane and Vieira in the tunnel; the mass brawl of 1990. Even the circumspect Telegraph described the fixture as “a history of football warfare”.

So for Oliver to officiate so brilliantly (only colour-blind United fans will argue this) was quite extraordinary. In the game he called it just as he saw it. Every time. Even if it meant sending off Angel Di Maria and booking FIVE other United players.

Di Maria’s dismissal effectively killed off United’s chance of finding a way back into the game but he deserved to go…cautioned first for diving and then for petulantly tugging at Oliver’s shirt. Plenty of other officials would have swallowed hard. And then bottled it.

His yellow card for Adnan Januzaj in the closing moments of normal time – the youngster trying to con a penalty – also took resolve, no matter how many red-shirted players tried to stick their faces into his.

Oliver also booked two Gunners, Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin, both spot-on decisions but his determination to do the right thing, not the popular thing, at Old Trafford marked him out as a young referee who is only to get better and better.

He has not been without critics in the past, but given that he was fast-tracked into the Premier League elite group at just 25 – and is already a FIFA referee – that is understandable. For much of his career he has been younger than most of the players he’s shared pitches with.

But here is a story to close that shows the cut of his jib. Oliver’s father, Clive, was also a leading ref, taking charge of matches throughout the Football League plus showpiece games such as the League Two play-off final at Wembley. Clive is now the chief executive of Northumberland FA.

Until recently, Michael was head of the refereeing academy at his dad’s county FA. But he resigned – something that could have soured the wine at the family get-together. Why?

Well, Michael’s fiancée Lucy May, who is also a referee, was told by Northumberland FA vice president John Cummings that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen and not on a football field”. The FA fined Cummings and the Northumberland body decided that was punishment enough and declined to act further – obviously to Michael Oliver’s disgust.

He’s obviously a man of principle. And boy did that show in Manchester last Monday.