Coleman cries foul as Halsey admits bowing to pressure

Fulham 0 - Arsenal 3
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The Independent Football

Referee Mark Halsey last night admitted that he had changed his mind over the award of a penalty to Fulham because of the protests made by Arsenal's players.

Referee Mark Halsey last night admitted that he had changed his mind over the award of a penalty to Fulham because of the protests made by Arsenal's players. In an extraordinary statement after this equalling extraordinary match - which extended Arsenal's unbeaten run to 45 League games - Halsey said that "if none of the players had argued" then maybe he would have stuck by his original decision. He also said that Fulham had not appealed hard enough in their favour.

"My initial reaction was 'penalty'," Halsey said of the first-half incident in which Ashley Cole appeared to foul Andy Cole. "But the players' reactions from both sides put a little bit of doubt in my mind. I thought, 'Have I got this decision correct'? Because if I gave the penalty, I then had to think about whether to dismiss Ashley Cole for denying a goalscoring opportunity."

Halsey said he "needed to buy a little time" and so "I went to my assistant Dave Bryan, who had a great view and informed me that Andy Cole had played the ball into Jens Lehmann's hands. The TV replays clearly show that."

His decision - and explanation - left Fulham's Chris Coleman apoplectic. "He was crap," he said of Halsey. "He had a stinker." Coleman will be following the matter up when he speaks to the referee's assessor tomorrow. He may also find himself in trouble for saying: "Arsenal are on a hell of a run and it will take a brave man to end it." The implication was that Halsey was far from a brave man.

Rarely indeed can a team who won by such a clear margin have been tested so vigorously. For an hour Arsenal came perilously close to seeing the end of their run before three goals in nine exhilarating minutes. Such was their clinical dissection. It opened a two-point lead at the Premiership's summit following Chelsea's draw and, startlingly, a nine-point advantage over Manchester United. Moreover Arsenal have scored 19 times in five games.

But it was not just the penalty that aggrieved Fulham. Amazingly, Halsey also disallowed a header by Collins John on the stroke of half-time. "All I know is that TV have told me that John Motson clearly indicated there was a push [on Kolo Touré]," Halsey said afterwards. Since when, with the best will in the world, was Motty the arbiter? Any contact was minimal.

Both incidents came in the first half, 45 minutes in which Fulham's effort was immense, their reward nil. "I thought, 'Right, we are going to go for it'," said Coleman. His team did and drew praise from Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. He, rightly, pointed out that his side was also strangely denied a first-half penalty when Moritz Volz clearly caught Thierry Henry's ankle. Man in the middle? Halsey was a man in a muddle. Fulham, with their robust gameplan, deserved better. They met flair with fire although Arsenal's resolve was as impressive as their luminous skill. The difference was exemplified by Wenger's ability to bring on Jose Antonio Reyes and his arrival, from the substitutes' bench, changed the game's course.

Still the feeling persists that Arsenal were vulnerable and Wenger acknowledged so. "We were all away," he said, referring to the midweek international commitments. "If you have one chance [to beat us] it was the best chance." Indeed Patrick Vieira's first game back from injury saw him bested by Papa Bouba Diop - also born in Senegal - surely the only midfield player in the Premiership who is more physically imposing than the Frenchman.

Coleman said his players were wild with indignation at the break. After it they, at first, reacted with an aggressive purpose. Diop's influence grew and John spurned two chances. Then Arsenal scored. Reyes laid the ball to Henry and his quick feet relayed it to Fredrik Ljungberg who drove a low shot across Edwin van der Sar. Immediately Arsenal attacked again and an incisive pass into the six-yard area by Dennis Bergkamp was poked into his own net by a despairing Zat Knight under pressure from Ljungberg. Finally Bergkamp released Reyes down the left and, in an instant, he skipped inside to loft his shot across the goalkeeper for his fifth goal in five games.

"Our lads started to feel sorry for themselves," said Coleman in mitigation, even if Lehmann was forced into two late saves from Cole. "It is not sour grapes," Coleman said, attempting to explain his rage. "All their goals were perfectly good goals. I've no complaints about them. But by then we should have been ahead."

Halsey was defiant. "Players make mistakes all the way through the game and give the ball away with bad passes," he said. "I'm human and it was a difficult game today. A London derby and I think we came through it." It was not a thought universally shared.