The cynic in me thinks it’s typical that Swansea’s best performance of the season coincided with a career-endingly poor performance from referee Stuart Attwell. This was a game Swansea should have won. Wilfried Bony had the ball in the net. To say Swansea don’t score often is as big an understatement as Attwell’s call was a travesty, so it was particularly frustrating to see that goal wiped out by just one in a game-long line of satin-soft calls against Swansea players.
Swansea foul on average 10.4 times per match, but Attwell blew for 18 against the Welsh side last Saturday, and only 6 for Bournemouth. Neither side has a reputation for physical play, so that 3:1 imbalance in fouls would be eye-opening enough on paper. In the flesh, it was much worse.
Almost every time a Swansea player made the slightest physical contact with an opponent, the Bournemouth player would hit the deck, and Attwell would whistle. When Bournemouth actually did foul Swansea players — the worst instance ending with Roque Mesa’s head cut open on Josh King’s swung elbow — Swansea got nothing. Andy Carroll has an advent calendar and inside door 25 is the next West Ham fixture that Attwell will “officiate”.
This kind of frustration is fruitless of course. Nothing can change that result, but it is hard enough to swallow this kind of blatant bias when your team is creating enough chances to overcome it. Swansea barely create goal scoring chances in an even contest; having to fight the referee as well makes it an impossible task.
All of this poses a question about the merits of physical play. I’m not about to condone deliberate violence, but here’s a thought: referees are going to call x number of fouls in a game regardless of how clean a team plays. I’m sceptical any team has gone through a game without committing a single offence (feel free to tweet me if I’m wrong). Referees are only human, and “make up calls” are a natural response. We’ve all seen games where the ref seemed to suddenly penalise one team unfairly because they felt guilty of showing bias towards the other team previous to that point (unless that ref is Stuart Attwell).
So if you know you can expect to be penalised regardless of actual intent (or even actual fouls if Attwell is in charge), wouldn’t you rather at least “earn” those penalties? Get the advantages committing a foul should bring? If you’re getting the punishment anyway, mightn’t you at least also do the crime? Had Swansea actually fouled Bournemouth 18 times on Saturday, they would have had a lot more of the run of play, because real fouls hurt.
You put a proper lick on a guy, and he’ll think twice about committing to 50-50 challenges for the rest of the game. You give a guy a bruise in a certain place or a dead leg and he’ll lose half a yard of pace. These are dark arts, but if it’s a choice between leveraging fouls to your advantage, or allowing a biased referee to privilege your opponent at your expense, what would you rather do?
Bournemouth got 18 free kicks without having to pay a price for most of them on Saturday, and they were still awful. Swansea should have won, and it’s hard to just shrug it off as one of those things, or say “it’ll all even out over the season”. Referee displays this bad don’t even out. The fact this ref already had a history of awful refereeing only makes it worse.
Stuart Attwell aside, Swansea should at least be encouraged that they might yet break out of their funk. The level of effort on Saturday was much higher, the pressing was back, the desire was back. Roque Mesa is a warrior, and it is worth playing him for his hwyl alone. All these players have made mistakes this season, but few can match the small Spaniards guts. Ki Sung-Yeung — the most lackadaisical man in Swansea since I last lived there — almost started a fight, and could easily have seen red for shoving the referee (the fact Attwell didn’t dismiss him suggests he knew he owed Swansea something). Bony Mk II is showing that he can be Bony Mk I again.
The side still don’t create enough shots, so it’s not as though one energetic performance against a team of nonchalant cheaters means everything is better now, but it’s a start. Confidence has to grow from somewhere, and Saturday is as good a place as any. Swansea have always fared better as the underdog, and if the side can carry the sense of injustice from Attwell’s farce into the next few games, perhaps they can rediscover some fighting spirit, and with it some killer instinct.
Why does it feel so wrong to type “killer instinct” in a blog about Swansea?