The red and the black

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The Independent Online
Highbury has witnessed plenty of impressive defending over the years but even connoisseurs of the art will have seen little to match Saturday's two rearguard actions.

One of them was public and ultimately in vain. The other was private and successful. The first display came from Sunderland who, for 30 minutes, showed how hard it is to break down an organised defence, even when it is part of a nine-man team. Eventually numbers told and they lost 2-0 to Arsenal.

There followed a behind-closed-doors defence, by Paul Danson, the referee. Enlisting the aid of the Metropolitan Police he blocked any chance of a post-match discussion with Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager. Danson appears to have formed a dim view of Reid's conversational skills during a spirited debate about the dismissal of Martin Scott, one of two Sunderland players Danson sent off in the first half.

Danson may have felt he was protecting Reid, having already ordered him from the touchline during that earlier discourse. A disrepute charge seems inevitable.

Reid would then join a distinguished guest list at Lancaster Gate. His arraignment would mean a quarter of the Premiership's managers are now on such a charge: Joe Royle, of Everton, was reported by David Elleray last week; Southampton's Graeme Souness and Bryan Robson, of Middlesbrough, have been cited by Mike Riley; and Danson has already listed Ron Atkinson and his assistant Gordon Strachan. The Coventry pair also face another investigation relating to a reserve game.

This charge sheet does the game no credit. It also provokes the inevitable question: Why? Is the game now so pressurised that managers can no longer control themselves? Or are referees so bad?

The evidence from Saturday is inconclusive. Reid's fury - he said he did not swear at the referee but his finger-jabbing dissent said everything - was provoked by a justified dismissal. Seventeen minutes into Saturday's game, Scott followed through recklessly on Lee Dixon. A sure booking. Four minutes later he was late again on Dixon. A red card was inevitable. Reid said it was a "great tackle" but he had not had the benefit of a television replay.

Paul Stewart had already been booked, correctly, for handball in the area. After 39 minutes, he handled again. This offence was in a harmless area of the pitch and seemed in response to a push by Steve Bould. A Sunderland free-kick? No, a red card. Up in the East Stand, Reid simply put his head in his hands. "He's off my Christmas card list," Reid said of Danson later. "All we want is consistency and a bit of common sense. I'd be off every week if I was playing now."

Consistency and common sense. A frequent plea. Having booked 74 players and sent off six in 19 games last season, Danson has cautioned 20 with three dismissals in five games this. He is consistent with himself, but how does this tally with Roger Dilkes who, in his five matches, has booked eight players and dismissed none?

Those men in black who follow the letter of the law would argue that the likes of Dilkes are undermining them by encouraging players to bend the rules. The FA notes that cautions are higher in Germany and Italy. Yet the best foreign referees are not automatons. The French referee at Old Trafford on Wednesday, though conned by David Beckham, was otherwise strict but reasonable.

A common complaint among players and managers is the lack of communication between them and officials. There was a time when referees trained with their local clubs and spent time talking to players. Now they place a police guard on the dressing-room door.

This is not a polemic against refereeing; the game has been improved by the crackdown at the 1994 World Cup. Ball players have been encouraged and defenders forced to learn how to defend. Some critics seem to forget how brutal the game was in the past. It was not so much a man's game as a cloggers' game.

"Some people have not adapted to the Fifa [the world governing body] dictates," Peter Willis, the president of the Referees' Association, said yesterday. "The referee should not be blamed for doing his job, he does not make the rules. If he does not referee in accordance with the laws he could lose his job."

Yet a balance must be struck. Scott deserved to go, his fouls could have caused serious injury. Stewart's first booking was for cheating, but his second was petty. His exit ruined the game as a spectacle, turning it into an academic exercise.

After the break Sunderland formed a revolutionary 6-2-0 formation, with the wingers pulled back. The midfield pair harried and chased in front of central defence, not even attempting to attack, and it was sad to see such a cultured player as Paul Bracewell reduced to kicking the ball to the far corners in order to waste time.

The consequence was a stalemate. Arsenal went 25 minutes without creating a chance, their need for a creative midfielder never more obvious. So, too, the need for some intelligence. David Platt kept directing his team- mates wide, as Pat Rice had suggested at half-time, but attack after attack was funnelled into the over-populated centre. Finally, Rice, the caretaker manager, brought on Paul Shaw and within a minute he had crossed for John Hartson to score. As Sunderland pushed forward - and, incredibly, almost equalised - they left gaps and Ray Parlour added a late second. Arsenal now lie second, not a bad position for Arsene Wenger to take over.

Goals: Hartson (73) 1-0; Parlour (88) 2-0.

Arsenal (3-4-1-2): Seaman; Keown, Adams, Bould; Dixon, Platt, Vieira (Parlour, 87), Winterburn (Shaw, 72); Merson; Wright, Hartson. Substitutes not used: Linighan, Rose, Lukic (gk).

Sunderland (4-5-1): Coton; Hall, Howey, Melville, Scott; Agnew, Bracewell (Bridges, 74), Ball, Rae (Kubicki, 20), Gray (Russell, 82); Stewart. Substitutes not used: Smith, Perez (gk).

Referee: P Danson (Leicester).

Bookings: Sunderland: Scott, Stewart, Bracewell. Sending offs: Sunderland: Scott, Stewart.

Man of the match: Shaw. Attendance: 38,016.