By Jonathan Birchall at Old Trafford
With 29 attempts on goal for Manchester United, a red card for Newcastle and only a 1-1 scoreline to show for it all at the final whistle, Saturday's match at Old Trafford was more than a little out of the ordinary. How fitting, then, that the game will be remembered for a penalty decision most strange.
With the home side having taken the lead following a fortunate but not undeserved goal for pinball wizard Javier Hernandez, after the ball had bounced around the Magpies area, it looked like the champions were about eke out a fourth straight 1-0 league win.
That was until the 64th minute, when all hell broke loose at the home of the Red Devils.
As the superb Hatem Ben Arfa accelerated into the right-hand side of the United area past Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick only to eventually fall to the floor in front of the Stretford End under a Rio Ferdinand sliding tackle, not even the travelling Newcastle fans appealed for a spot kick with any great clamour.
The Frenchman fulfilled the modern footballer's obligation to appeal of course, but to say his was out of hope rather than expectation might even be overstating it. Referee Mike Jones, like 76,000 others at the Theatre of Dreams remained unconvinced, pointing for a corner kick after the challenge.
Yet on the far touchline, unquestionably further away than the eight or so yards that Jones was from the incident, assistant referee John Flynn flagged with the confidence of a man certain in his convictions. You'd expect, and possibly even hope, that he wasn't.
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|On Alan Wiley after a 1-1 draw with Sunderland in 2009
"The pace of the game demanded a referee who was fit. It is an indictment of our game...He wasn’t fit, he was taking 30 seconds to book a player. He was needing a rest. It was ridiculous."
On Howard Webb ahead of a game against Chelsea last year
"Howard Webb is a fantastic referee, he has the skills to handle the occasion. If the referee has no experience, maybe I can be a little bit worried about this, but with Webb there is no problem."
On Martin Atkinson last year following a fixture also against Chelsea
"You hope you get a really strong referee in games like this. It was a major game for both clubs and you want a fair referee. You want a strong referee anyway and we didn’t get that...I don’t know why he’s got the game. I must say that when I saw who was refereeing it, I feared the worst."
On Herbert Strandl following defeat to Roma in 2007
"Considering we played with 10 men - mostly against 12 men - for over an hour, this is a good result for us. I don't think we got a decision all night but that is European football, I'm afraid."
On Chris Foy following a Gary Neville red card in 2010
"I think in the present climate the referee was correct."
On the lot of them in 2005
"You can't applaud a referee."
Replays in the Old Trafford press box confirmed what was already clear with the naked eye, as the England defender clearly met the ball before taking the former Marseille man with him to the turf. The referee, whose angle left his view largely restricted, was correct to consult his linesman for the avoidance of doubt. Trusting him, it transpired, was an entirely different matter.
The reaction of the players was further indication to a mistake having been made. The sheer incredulity of the hosts threatened to manifest itself into something ugly as they surrounded Jones and Flynn with thoughts of the Roy Keane-led pursuit of Andy D'Urso against Middlesbrough in 2000 beckoning. You got the sense that half of the Stretford End would've joined them were it not for the stewards in their way.
In contrast, the almost mischievous glances of those in good fortune from the Newcastle players was as damning an indictment of the officials as any abuse levelled at the pair from the home support.
The image of Ferguson remonstrating with Chris Foy on the touchline following the decision told the story far more eloquently than the angered Scot would have been able to at the time, with the stand-in fourth official left with no choice but to remain stony-faced, arms crossed and completely silent. Even he couldn't defend his colleagues in the refereeing fraternity.
Jones, as fate would have it, wasn't even supposed to be in charge at Old Trafford, and was drafted in to replace the unwell Phil Dowd, but after seeing a replay of the incident as well as Ferguson's post-match dressing down, you wouldn't be surprised if he started to feel a bit peaky himself.
The unfortunate victim of the piece was Ferdinand, who refused to comment about the decision given against him on Twitter for fear of reprimand from the Football Association. Ferguson typically failed to show such restraint.
"The referee thought it was a corner and he was nearer to the incident. It was an absolute travesty," he told the BBC in his post-match interview. "I don't think anyone in the ground thought it was a penalty apart from the assistant referee." But he wasn't done there.
"Everyone, including the referee, was astounded. He was put in a terrible position. Why can't the referee overrule it when he is only eight yards away?" the Scot then asked on MUTV.
"The problem is that the referees are full-time and the linesmen are not, and whether he ever gets a game again, the assistant referee, is not for me to decide but it was an absolutely shocking decision."
Alan Pardew, to his credit, admitted in the post-match press conference that he would've "felt aggrieved" had the penalty been given against his team and despite a late flurry from the home side that saw them hit the post and see a Hernandez goal correctly chalked off for offside, Newcastle had a case for deserving the draw.
Reserved in large part indeed, but to completely attribute their point at Old Trafford to the penalty would unfairly undermine the efforts of Magpies such as Tim Krul and Ben Arfa, both of whom were excellent once again for the travelling Toon.
Nor, it must be said, can Jones be too heavily criticised. He was in no way perfect at Old Trafford but the other big decisions of the game were called correctly. The referee's treatment of Rooney's perceived first-half kick at Fabricio Coloccini, Jonas Gutierrez's dismissal for two rash challenges on Michael Carrick and Nani, as well as Chicharito's offside goal was excellent in each case.
Opposition managers often lament the ruthlessness of playing at Old Trafford, with the old adage that one mistake is enough to see you punished. Such was the case for Sir Alex Ferguson's men, though they can at least take solace in knowing that they didn't have themselves to blame.Follow Jonathan Birchall on