Martin O'Neill believes referees are not sticking to the guidelines they presented to managers regarding penalties at the start of the season. O'Neill has seen his side have a penalty appeal turned down in each of their last two games. Those decisions could yet prove crucial. Sunderland remain on the cusp of a serious relegation fight, after drawing 2-2 against Fulham. They travel to resurgent Queen's Park Rangers next week, and then face a run of Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle in three of the following four games.
Last week, they were denied what appeared to be a fairly nailed on penalty when West Brom's Gareth McAuley blocked Adam Johnson's shot with his arm. On Saturday Sunderland were awarded one against Fulham, when Philippe Senderos grabbed hold of Danny Graham and Craig Gardner scored it, giving Sunderland a lifeline back into a game in which they were trailing 2-0 following a Dimitar Berbatov penalty and a Sascha Riether goal. However, after Stéphane Sessègnon had equalised in the 70th minute, they were denied a second penalty when Senderos handled the ball in his penalty area.
"When the referee came in to speak to us it seemed reasonably clear," said O'Neill. "We had a meeting and he showed us some examples. Whether we thought those things were penalties 10 or 15 years ago is a different issue. It's not the point.
"I spoke to the referee after the game and he thinks there are a lot of soft penalties and I'm not disagreeing with that in general, but that's not the point. If these are the rules now, and the directives we have to adhere to, then it's a penalty. That's the frustration.
"What happened last week just adds to the frustration. I think referees should be reasonably clear about what is and isn't a handball – maybe it just hasn't been passed on to me yet. I spoke to Mark [Halsey, the referee on Saturday] and, to be fair, he allowed me in to his changing room.
"I told him that I thought the penalty incident was absolutely clear cut. I've seen it twice, in slow motion and in real time but he didn't think it was a deliberate handball. Given the rules that he was part of, it's a penalty. Senderos swung around and initially the ref might not have seen it, but he carried on swinging around and hit the ball. He followed through with it. It's a penalty and it's as simple as that.
"It doesn't matter how many penalties you have given in a game. If there is another incident in the last three or four minutes, it's still a penalty."
That overshadowed a brave fightback after a grim opening. Both teams have work to do before they can feel safe, as Martin Jol admitted.
"We still need a couple more wins to be safe," he said. "Deep down I don't think we will get dragged into relegation, we always try to look up but on the other hand if you look at the situation, Wigan 24 points, Southampton 27, there are still 10 games to go and even QPR can stay up with six wins.
"It is not easy. I feel even with 33 points now you will go down. We have been in the right place at the right moments. I expect Sunderland and Fulham to be in the Premier League next season although I am not a wizard and I don't have a crystal ball."
Goals: Sunderland Gardner pen 37, Sessègnon 70. Fulham Berbatov pen 16, Riether 34.
Substitutions: Sunderland McClean (Graham, 76). Fulham Frimpong (Karagounis, 65), Emanuelson (Duff, 80), Rodallega (Dejagah, 85).
Bookings: Sunderland N'Diaye. Fulham Hangeland, Sidwell, Riether. Man of the match Dejagah.
Match rating 5/10. Possession: Sunderland 49%. Fulham 51%. Attempts on target: Sunderland 5. Fulham 5. Referee M Halsey (Lancashire). Attendance 39,312.