Salako's tackle sours success

Coventry City 1 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online
Compared with the feast of football laid before Anfield three days earlier, this was a British Rail buffet of a match. Although substantial enough to satisfy a Coventry crowd gagging to savour an overdue success, it left a bitter taste that could not be attributed to sour grapes on Liverpool's part.

Defeat effectively ended Liverpool's challenge for the championship, as their manager, Roy Evans, conceded. What upset him far more, however, was the broken leg sustained by Steve Harkness and the response of the referee, Peter Jones, to the incident and its aftermath.

Coventry were defending, with uncharacteristic resolution, Noel Whelan's superbly taken early goal when John Salako's leading foot crashed into Harkness's right shin. First impressions were that the challenge was badly timed rather than calculated to inflict damage; a forward's tackle, perhaps, by a substitute psyched up to make an immediate impact in a high-tempo match.

After five minutes Harkness departed on a stretcher, with the sickening sound of Coventry supporters chanting "cheat" and "gerrimoff" ringing in his ears. Salako, who overcame a career-threatening injury in his Crystal Palace days, was duly cautioned.

Yet it was hard to resist the conclusion that Mr Jones' view was coloured by John Barnes' unusually vehement protest. It also seemed symptomatic of his lack of conviction that he had to consult a linesman before reaching for yellow.

Salako, whose tackling is normally more Julian Clary than Julian Dicks, later argued that "it was 50-50 ball. . . I made contact with the ball first and my momentum carried me through." The referee could only guess at whether the Coventry winger meant to go over the top. Having decided there was intent, it should have been the red card or none at all.

The impression of Mr Jones as an official swayed by extraneous pressures was confirmed by the way he ended proceedings. Taking into account the stoppages for treatment to Harkness and Peter Ndlovu, we expected seven minutes "injury time". He allowed less than three, further strengthening the case for a rugby league-style timekeeper in the stand.

That halted in its tracks Liverpool's siege of the home goal, which had just produced the first opening for Robbie Fowler and a crucial save by Steve Ogrizovic. Heated exchanges between Evans' staff and the referee followed, with Joe Corrigan, the goalkeeping coach, speaking for many when he demanded to know how a player could receive only "two minutes" treatment for a broken leg.

Evans wondered aloud how such a "poor tackle" merited the same punishment as a trivial offence like kicking the ball away; one of the game's perennial paradoxes. Ron Atkinson was the only Liverpudlian present who disagreed. Asked whether Salako's action was malicious, the Coventry manager replied with a scornful stare and the rhetorical question that has become a catchphrase: "Are you sure?"

Coventry are by no means sure of a 30th season in the top section, especially with a game at Manchester United today. But apart from the wonder of Whelan and his understanding with Dion Dublin, they revealed a resilient streak not always evident in Atkinson's teams. Paul Williams, creating the impression of simultaneously operating in midfield and defence, was its embodiment.

By the same token, poor Harkness became a symbol of Liverpool's broken title dream. Commendably as they tried on a pitch that was part bog and part beach, their passing was perfunctory and their forward play bereft of penetration. The heavily ironic price, it seemed, of over-indulgence in the "game of the season".

Goal: Whelan (18) 1-0.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Pickering, Daish, Busst, Borrows (Jess, 58); Telfer, Richardson, Williams, Ndlovu (Salako, 58); Whelan, Dublin. Substitute not used: Filan (gk).

Liverpool (3-4-1-2): James; Scales, Harkness (Thomas, 63), Matteo; McAteer, Redknapp, Barnes, R Jones (Rush, 74); McManaman; Fowler, Collymore. Substitute not used: Warner (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Coventry: Telfer, Borrows, Ndlovu. Liverpool: Harkness, McAteer.

Man of the match: Williams.

Attendance: 23,137.