Neil Warnock has rarely rubbed along with officialdom in the lower leagues and, after yesterday, things are unlikely to improve in the Premiership. The ground was full, Sheffield United were back in the big time for the first time in 12 years and they were leading the FA Cup holders. Then the referee, Rob Styles, spoilt their perfect day.
If Chris Morgan touched Steven Gerrard as the Liverpool captain barnstormed into the penalty area in the 69th minute, then the contact was minimal. Gerrard was unbalanced, and Paddy Kenny saved his shot but then looked up to see Stiles pointing to the spot for a penalty that Robbie Fowler converted.
Bramall Lane seethed, the supporters chanted: "Justice, justice" and booed the referee as he left the field, but Warnock, who is serving a six-match touchline ban, refused to let rip "It wasn't a penalty, there was no contact," the surprisingly sanguine Sheffield United manager said. "Ninety-five per cent of people involved in the game would not have awarded it but unfortunately Mr Styles was in the other five per cent."
The incident overshadowed an otherwise excellent performance from the home side, who took the lead through Rob Hulse just after half-time and gave a performance to encourage those who believe they will survive in the Premiership this season. "The players and the fans were magnificent," Warnock said. "We're a good team and I think we'll do OK this season.
Meeting newly promoted clubs when the fire is undiminished is never an easy prospect and Rafael Benitez's team reflected this. Jermaine Pennant was only a substitute and Xabi Alonso and £11m signing Dirk Kuyt were not even in the 16 as the Liverpool manager named a side built for hit-and-run away missions.
In this respect the first half was highly satisfactory for the visitors. They absorbed the Blades early pressure, and the loss of John Arne Riise and Jamie Carragher to twisted ankles, and then slowly emerged as an attacking force of their own. Indeed, they could have gone in at half-time two goals ahead.
Their best effort was a curling free-kick from the Brazilian full-back Fabio Aurelio that Paddy Kenny did well to pull away from the top corner, although Fowler should have done better after a clever return pass from Craig Bellamy in the 45th minute. A sure first touch and Fowler would have been bearing in on goal from a range of eight yards, but the ball got caught up in his feet.
Liverpool's superiority was exposed as a mirage within a minute of the restart. Sami Hyypia and Aurelio were so distracted by Morgan's run across them that when David Unsworth's free-kick arrived in the area Hulse was on his own as he headed into the roof of the net.
Hyypia almost made amends within three minutes when he headed Gerrard's corner against a post but Liverpool were running out of ideas when Gerrard exchanged an exquisite one-two with Fowler and the Blades' afternoon was converted from euphoric to merely satisfactory.
"Liverpool will go very close this season and I think they'll not get many tougher games," Warnock said before taking another prize from the afternoon. "For 20 minutes we were top of the Premiership. That's something to tell the family."Reuse content