It's been ten years since Manchester United conceded a Premiership penalty. Only three teams have been awarded an Old Trafford penalty during that time, all failing to score. Paul Benjamin talks to Ruel Fox – the last visiting player to score from the spot there – and referee Peter Jones, to find out why this is so
It came as a surprise to learn recently that December 4, 1993 was a more momentous occasion than being my first trip to Old Trafford with Norwich. I had no idea that when Ruel Fox stepped up to thump the ball past Peter Schmeichel, it would be the last Premiership penalty scored there by the visitors for ten years. I realise now that this is quite a phenomenal record – or at least would be for any other team. But somehow, because it’s Manchester United, I’m not all that surprised.
The folklore among supporters up and down the country is that referees never give anything to the opposition at Old Trafford. United have a formidable reputation when it comes to appealing for and against such decisions; you’d have to be a brave referee to turn down the snarling advances of Roy Keane. Newspaper images of the team closing in on referees paint a vivid picture, one of a side that will go to any lengths to win a decision.
“Not true,” says Peter Jones, a man who should know. Having refereed over 400 games in England and Europe, and United 25 times home and away, he is full of admiration for the team and its home. “It’s a wonderful stadium to officiate at and a wonderful thing to walk out there for the first time, but it’s no different from any other ground.” In fact, he claims the legend of intimidation is all in the minds of the visiting fans. “It’s not that hostile – the intensity is far greater at smaller grounds.” Jones wheels out the time-honoured “a professional referee never lets it affect him” line but, he persists, it really isn’t anything sinister. “The team are, among referees, notorious for their fair play. Yes they appeal for everything, but any good team should.” Why does he think it’s been ten years since they conceded a Premiership penalty? “Because the away teams spend most of their time defending.”
In those ten years, only three other penalties have been given at Old Trafford. Juninho, David Dunn and Muzzy Izzet all missed. “I’m honoured, it’s a privilege,” says Fox, unaware of his achievement until I tell him. He hasn’t given it a thought since that day, despite it being the only penalty he ever scored for Norwich. “It doesn’t seem that long ago. I remember having a half-decent game and when [Gary] Pallister fouled Chris [Sutton], I just stepped up to take it and nobody argued. I wasn’t worried about the crowd or their players, just how I was going to get the ball past a giant like Schmeichel. I remember hitting it really hard and we finished happy with a 2-2 draw.”
Fox isn’t surprised that so few visiting teams have been awarded penalties. “United defend so well, just to be given a free-kick at Old Trafford is a bonus. Getting a penalty was like it was Christmas.” Doesn’t he think the United team push it just a little bit, though? “Not at all. All credit to them. It’s too easy to say the crowd and players’ appeals are responsible for the decisions going their way. They’re just very, very good. Alex [Ferguson] likes his teams to appeal and why not? Referees aren’t intimidated by it – they’re strong enough to take it otherwise they wouldn’t be there.”
So we can lay the urban myth to bed for once and for all. Old Trafford is not the seat of hell, where referees fear to tread and teams are cursed. There is no conspiracy. Remember, though, if you’re heading there hoping for a victory, it probably won’t come from a spot-kick. If your team does get one, here’s some advice to your striker from the last man to score one: “Just close your eyes and smash it.”
From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month