Rather like dog bites man, manager condemns referee may not be news. Steve Coppell questioning one certainly is. Andthis was one of the rare occasions when the Reading man-ager allowed that normal stoicalvisage to slip.
Never mind that, against talented visitors who still harbour European qualification pretensions, his team edged towards security. Or that, after shipping goals all season, his defenders, with Andrey Bikey in except-ional form, secured their third clean sheet in five games. Or that, once his midfielder Marek Matejovsky departed after two cautions, Coppell's side performed with great resilience to claim one point and could even have mugged Blackburn and gained all three. The "emotional helter-skelter", as he recently described the tension of the relegation scrap, finally got to him.
Before the referee Mark Clattenburg's over-zealous 72nd- minute dismissal of the Czech international, a Rovers side displaying "not a great deal of spark or energy", according to their manager, Mark Hughes, had looked there for the taking. One could not dispute Matejovsky's first caution on the hour, for a foul on David Dunn, but the second, following an innocuous collision with Jason Roberts,was unnecessary.
"We might have had two different refs," Coppell said of Clattenburg, who during this edgy but never malicious contest produced nine yellow cards. "In the first half he was laid back and let things go. In the second half he was a terror. It was bump, whistle, and then a yellow card."
One could comprehend Coppell's irritation. Before the interval Blackburn's captain, Ryan Nelsen, was cautioned for using his knee to knock the ball out of Marcus Hahnemann's hands as the goalkeeper was about to clear, as was the American goalkeeperfor reacting to it. Yet earlier Nelsen escaped punishment after yanking back Kevin Doyle.
"For a top referee it was inconsistent," said Coppell, who added, with heavy-handed sarcasm, of Matejovsky: "He's a real animal of a midfielder, isn't he? How many fouls did he commit? Three all afternoon? But we had Mr Hyde refereeing in the second half. The imbalance in the way the game was refereed affected it. Nelsen should have beensent off after 20 minutes. He would have been sent off in the second half."
In the early stages, the hosts had not appeared a side with relegation worries. Doyle was in assertive mood, and only a desperate challenge by Andre Ooijer on Stephen Hunt at the near post denied Reading. Coppell's defence have been less vulnerable of late, but there was always a feeling that Roque Santa Cruz and Jason Roberts could profit if David Bentley could provide the ammunition. Itnever happened.
Reading were far more threatening after the break, and Doyle headed over before Hunt spurned two difficult opportunities. Before Matejovsky's sending-off Rovers had looked only sporadically dangerous. A Bentley volley had brought a fine save from Hahnemann and a beautiful ball from David Dunn for once eluded Bikey and Santa Cruz looked certain to score, but poked the ball the wrong side of the post.
Once Matejovsky departed, Rovers drove forward far more purposefully, and nearly scored when a referee's assistant failed to flag four Blackburn players who appeared offside as a free-kick was driven in. One, Zurab Khizanishvili, dispatched a powerful header which Hahnemann saved. "There would have been a minor revolt if that had gone in," reflected Coppell.
Santa Cruz could still have won it, but was thwarted by Hahnemann at close range. And a kind of justice was done.