FOOTBALL: Irwin maintains his innocence

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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED'S Denis Irwin yesterday insisted that referee David Elleray was wrong to send him off during Wednesday's crucial Premiership run-in match against Liverpool. Having been booked for a foul, he received a second card and was dismissed for kicking the ball away after the linesman had flagged for a throw-in.

"I deserved the first booking because I mistimed my tackle," the 33-year- old Republic of Ireland left-back said yesterday. "But it was touch and go whether the ball was in or out for the second. What am I supposed to do? Do I stop because I think it might be over the line? I couldn't see the linesman's flag because he was behind me and I don't think there was a whistle from the referee."

The sending-off - Irwin's first ever - means he will be suspended for the FA Cup final against Newcastle on 22 May. His only hope is if Elleray re-considers his decision after seeing a video of the match and cancels the second yellow card. The chances of that seem unlikely. Philip Don, the Premier League's referees' officer, defended Elleray last night and said he did not believe the official should overturn his decision. "The whistle had gone and Denis played the ball twice and kicked it away. The law has been broken."

After Irwin's dismissal, United surrendered a 2-1 lead to draw the game 2-2. As Arsenal, United's main challengers for the title, extended their lead at the top of the table to three points by beating Tottenham 3- 1 at White Hart Lane, the events at Liverpool particularly angered United's manager Alex Ferguson. "We would have won the game had it not been for the referee," Ferguson said on Wednesday night. Ferguson received support yesterday from Clive Thomas, the former World Cup referee. "A fourth official would have told David Elleray it wasn't a penalty and it would not have been awarded," Thomas said.

Ferguson's comments may yet get him into trouble with the FA, however, but only if Elleray includes the remarks in his official match report.

The Gunners, who have received seven red cards this season to United's three, will not have much sympathy with their rivals. Their own problems continued yesterday, with defender Nigel Winterburn being reported to the FA following their game against Spurs. Winterburn danced in front of Tottenham fans following Nwankwo Kanu's 84th-minute goal, Arsenal's third. He was asked to stop by a steward and allegedly swore at the fourth official. The official has included the incident in his report to the FA, which has passed the matter on to compliance officer Graham Bean.

"The FA can confirm that we have received a faxed report from Graham Poll regarding an incident involving Nigel Winterburn and a steward at Tottenham Hotspur following Arsenal's third goal last night," a spokesman said.

Patrick Vieira hardly added to the general aura of disharmony by accusing Tottenham's Tim Sherwood of "very dangerous" play. "He could have broken my leg and, for me, he's just a bad player," the Frenchman said of one tackle. "He also tried to elbow me and that was in front of the referee but for some reason nothing was done."

The sum total of Wednesday's events still leaves the title in the balance, and the champions may yet be decided on goal difference for the first time since Arsenal pipped Liverpool in 1989.

United travel to old boy Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough on Sunday. Two days later, Arsenal travel to Leeds - coached by their former captain, David O'Leary. United then play away at former coach Brian Kidd's Blackburn on 12 May. On the last day of the season, 16 May, Arsenal are at home to Aston Villa and United at home to Spurs. The bookmakers, like most people, feel it will be close. After a surge of money for Arsenal yesterday, both sides were 5-6 for the title with William Hill.

PREMIERSHIP TITLE RUN-IN

TOP THREE

P W D L F A Pts

Arsenal 36 21 12 3 58 16 75

Man Utd 35 20 12 3 77 36 72

Chelsea 36 19 14 3 53 27 71

Should sides finish level on points, goal difference will prevail. If still level, goals scored will be used.

REMAINING FIXTURES

ARSENAL

11 May: Leeds (A). 16 May: Aston Villa (H).

MANCHESTER UNITED

Sunday: Middlesbrough (A). 12 May: Blackburn (A). 16 May: Tottenham (H).

CHELSEA

Monday: Tottenham (A). 16 May: Derby (H).

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