There are four words currently being bandied around Birmingham and Aston. From Birmingham’s point of view, Martin Atkinson and incorrect are the most important. For Villa, correct/fortunate seem the most apt depending on a fans disposition and feelings towards City fans (along with a massive sigh of relief at winning a game that arguably could have gone either way).
Referee Martin Atkinson, who had, up to the 82nd minute, had a quiet and serenely easy game of football to lord over. That all stopped however, as a game changing decision emerged. As soon as Villa striker Gabriel Agbonlahor went over after being on the receiving end of a Roger Johnson tackle, it was immediately apparent that the resulting decision, penalty or no penalty, would be the vital cog in an already fascinating game. In the 81 minutes leading up to an ultimately fatal decision for Birmingham, the Premier League had witnessed a truly delightful derby game. Birmingham were playing so well that any result other than a win would have been a disappointment. As it is, Villa did not play poorly and indeed had many chances of their own but it was the fashion in which Birmingham’s pressure presented itself that made Birmingham’s ultimate heartbreak all the more cruel.
For Alex McLeish’s men, seven shots on target, all of which could have gone in had Brad Friedel not been on form (a similar idea also holds true for Aston Villa and Joe Hart), meant nothing because of the dubious penalty decision. In the split second after the tackle, it seemed obvious that Johnson had taken Agbonlahor down and subsequently denied him a goalscoring opportunity. After a multitude of replays from unlimited angles, various conclusions ensued. Post-mortems will be bouncing around the pubs, buses, trains and homes of Birmingham and at the end of it all, there will still be divided opinions.
Indeed, the two managers, Martin O’Neill and McLeish certainly disagreed. The words of Villa manager O’Neill: “I’ve seen it back since and it is a definite penalty. It is a penalty – simple as that” differ drastically from McLeish’s damning summary of the decision: “It was a bad mistake by the ref. He was not up with the play.” The big question is, was Atkinson wrong to award the decision? Johnson did, as many have said, touch the ball, but his momentum took him through Agbonlahor and prevented him from continuing his run towards goal. The touch itself was not so drastic to change the path of the ball massively and had Johnson not touched Agbonlahor, or had Gabby avoided the tackle, the Villa man would have been able to latch on to the deflected ball seamlessly. That, the small flick of the ball, is pivotal. Myopic Villa and Blues fans will argue their sides case fervently, analysts will dissect the challenge endlessly but after all of that, the simple fact is that the goal stands. James Milner scored with an emphatic finish and Aston Villa won their sixth straight derby.
Fair or not, this is yet another example of how one decision can change the course of the game. If Atkinson had decided to ignore the penalty claim, would Birmingham have won the game? Would the two respective goalkeepers have managed to keep their sheets clean? Here at A Different League, we will leave those decisions to you.