Sunderland 1 Aston Villa 1: Referee rules out happy ending to Sunderland story

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The Independent Online

On the final whistle, Roy Keane put his boot through the bottle container sitting adjacent to him. That told the story of a dramaticand controversial last minute at the Stadium of Light, when the referee, Steve Bennett, disallowed a header from Sunderland's Danny Collins for an alleged foul on the Aston Villa goalkeeper, Scott Carson. Keane said Sunderland fans would go home feeling "cheated" by Bennett's intervention, and there was no attempt from Keane to disguise the fact that he shared their sense of injustice.

When the substitute Grant Leadbitter swept in a corner as the game slipped into injury time, Carson was surrounded by three red-and-white shirts, one of which belonged to Collins.

Television replays could not convince Keane, or any of the 43,000 Sunderland fans present, that there was contact with Carson, but Keane thought that Bennett had decided to blow as the ball was entering the area.

"It was a header. He scored. Three yards out. My concern is that the referee had already decided to blow before the ball had come in," Keane said. "As the ball was travelling you could see he was ready to blow, but this referee will enjoy that we're talking about him. It was a massive call."

Keane said that he had seen Bennett in the Sunderland team hotel on Friday night and had been worried "a gut feeling" and his remarks are likelyto bring official censure ofsome form.

The dispute overshadowed a rousing, old-fashioned sort of game, and Martin O'Neill was clearly thinking the fuss would camouflage a vibrant attacking display from the visitors. O'Neill was correct when he said that few could argue Villa deserved to lose.

Having fallen behind to a rare early goal from Sunderland Danny Higginbotham rising high to nod in a Ross Wallace cross from a well-worked corner O'Neill saw his side respond with vigour and speed. Ashley Young was emblematic of all things good for Villa, the winger running and crossing with such frequency that Keane praised his defence for dealing with "fifty or sixty crosses".

But, although Villa dominatedthe rest of the first half after Higginbotham's header, it wasthe 39th minute before they seriously worried Darren Ward, again retained by Keane at the expense of Craig Gordon. John Carew, a handful all day, produced a diving header that skimmed a post. That was not a reflection of the state of the game, yet the visitors were inches away from being two down in first-half injury time when Kenwyne Jones twisted away from Martin Laursen and lashed a shot that Carson tipped aside.

The second half was more open but just as helter-skelter. Young again led the charge, Gabriel Agbonlahor also beginning to show, but it was the 67th minute introduction of Shaun Maloney that changed the match.

After Sunderland had frittered away possession at a throw-in, Maloney was upended by Paul McShane, whose 90 minutes were half-composed, half last-ditch. Twenty yards out, Maloney bent a hard, fast directfree-kick up and over the wall and in. Ward was static as the net rippled.

"Magnificent," said O'Neill. "I carried him," joked Keane of Maloney during their days together at Celtic.

Perhaps because Villa had expended so much energy, Sunderland had the better of the last frantic 10 minutes. Leadbitter might have won all the points with an 86th-minute header. Then came the same player's corner and Bennett's whistle.

"Personally, I thought the player's [Collins's] arm came across," O'Neill said. "I'm just goingin to see Roy now. I should be rather petrified."

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