Sins of St Mary's bred by referees' step backwards

Southampton 1 - Arsenal 1
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The Independent Football

The consequences of the red cards dispensed by Alan Wiley at St Mary's on Saturday are clear. David Prutton, having accosted the referee, will be charged today with "threatening and aggressive behaviour towards a match official" and is unlikely to play any further part in Southampton's struggle against relegation. Robin van Persie, having prompted Arsène Wenger into a rare display of public anger, will sit out tomorrow's FA Cup replay against Sheffield United, a match for which Arsenal have just one fit senior forward. Both men have let down their clubs.

All parties however, especially Robert Pires and Graeme Le Saux, who were injured by Prutton and Van Persie respectively, have been let down by Keith Hackett. As head of Professional Game Match Officials Ltd, Hackett, a respected former official, has done much good work in assessing and improving referees' performances.

He is, though, also responsible for a retrograde step in the English game. While his predecessor, Philip Don, allowed too little room for "common sense" refereeing, Hackett's preference for laissez-faire man-management has encouraged a climate in which over-zealous tackling has flourished. The inevitable results are two-fold. Players get injured - Pires, his ankle clattered into by Prutton, will be fortunate if he only misses a week. Then they get wary. Next time, instead of dwelling on the ball, Pires may decide to unload it. Red cards are often criticised for "ruining the game as a spectacle" when one side is reduced. Not as much as permitting a culture in which ball-players are vulnerable.

It was recently revealed that there are more fouls in Serie A than the Premiership, and more red cards. This is clearly another example where statistics and reality diverge. Fewer fouls may be penalised in England, but there are clearly more committed. Didier Drogba, for example, would not have been booked in England for his foul on the Barcelona goalkeeper in midweek. Prutton and Van Persie were both undoubtedly "stupid", to quote the Southampton manager, Harry Redknapp, but their behaviour was in context.

In truth, Wiley should have shown both Prutton and Van Persie red for their first offences, not yellow (Prutton mowed down Mathieu Flamini like a combine harvester, Van Persie elbowed Rory Delap across the chin). Even his eventual dismissal of Prutton only occurred after consulting his linesman, Paul Norman. This led to the confrontation with Prutton who twice pushed Wiley in trying to get to Norman. Eventually, Prutton was bundled away by Southampton back-room staff.

The incident unsettled Southampton and Arsenal scored in the immediate aftermath, Freddie Ljungberg turning in Thierry Henry's mis-hit shot. After Van Persie evened the sides, Southampton levelled when Jens Lehmann went walkabout at Jamie Redknapp's corner allowing Peter Crouch to head over him and into the net. Arsenal should have still have won comfortably but Paul Smith made a series of outstanding saves, notably from Henry, Ljungberg and Ashley Cole.

Redknapp drew comfort from a point which seemed unobtainable at half-time, though any pleasure would have been dimmed by Crystal Palace's subsequent victory over Birmingham City. Wenger blamed poor finishing, as well as Van Persie, for Arsenal's failure to win but was clearly unhappy with the Dutchman.

Van Persie's dismissal means Wenger may have to use either Jeremie Aliadière, who has been injured for months, or the teenager Arturo Lupoli alongside Henry at Bramall Lane. "There is a lot of talent there," he added. "How quickly he learns will decide how big a player he will be. I think he's intelligent enough to know he shouldn't have done it."

Arsenal had previously gone 50 League games without a red card (the best in the Premiership) but it was their 58th under Wenger in all and second in eight days. Wenger, however, again blamed Dennis Bergkamp's dismissal last week on the referee's failure to dismiss Danny Cullip for his foul on Cesc Fabregas. "Dennis would not have been sent off and people would be scandalised by what Cullip did," said Wenger. Some might, but not, apparently, Keith Hackett.

EMPTY ARSENAL? BANNED STRIKERS

Dennis Bergkamp Sent off v Sheff Utd. Suspended for: 1-1 draw at Southampton on Saturday; Sheff Utd (a) tomorrow; Portsmouth (h) on Saturday.

Jose Antonio Reyes Violent conduct v Sheff Utd. Suspended for: 1-1 draw at Southampton on Saturday; Sheff Utd (a) tomorrow; Portsmouth (h) on Saturday.

Robin van Persie Sent off v Southampton. Suspended for: Sheff Utd (a) tomorrow.

Goals: Ljungberg (45) 0-1; Crouch (67) 1-1.

Southampton (4-4-2): Smith; Delap, Lundekvam, Jakobsson, Bernard; Prutton, Redknapp, Quashie, Le Saux (Telfer, 72); Camara (Phillips, 85), Crouch. Substitutes not used: Poke (gk), Higginbotham, Davenport.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Touré (Eboué, 75), Senderos, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Flamini, Pires (Clichy, 45); Henry, Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Lauren, Aliadière.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Southampton Prutton; Arsenal Van Persie. Sent Off: Southampton Prutton; Arsenal Van Persie.

Man of the match: Smith.

Attendance: 31,815.

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