On this day 12 years ago, mid-table Sunderland AFC welcomed Stoke City to the Stadium of Light on a snowy Saturday afternoon for a Premier League game that offered plenty of controversy to warm up the 38,000 freezing cold supporters, coming off the back of a disappointing FA Cup replay defeat after extra time away at Blackburn Rovers three days earlier.
Before the match, the big story had been the decision by Niall Quinn and the Sunderland board to freeze season ticket prices for the Sunderland faithful in acknowledgement of the economic impact on the fanbase of the ongoing global financial crisis. And fans had plenty of time to digest this welcome news during the first half, the game being punctuated by long stoppages as the Potters were forced by series of injuries into making all three substitutions within half an hour, culminating in striker Ricardo Fuller dislocating his shoulder after a good challenge by George McCartney.
Stoke were already missing the outlet of the ex-Sunderland man Rory Delap’s throw ins, and the game was surely there for the taking for the home side. The Sunday newspaper headlines, however, would be as much about the controversial referee as the result.
The major talking point came before the break; Steed Malbranque’s back-post header from an Andy Reid hook in from the byline was well saved from short range by the hands of substitute defender Danny Pugh, who pushed it wide of the post. But, quite inexplicably, the moment escaped the attention of referee Rob Styles, who gave a corner kick rather than a penalty and and red card. Cue howls of “handball” from (almost) the entire crowd, and impassioned protests from the Black Cats on the pitch, all swiftly waved away by the man with the whistle.
The Mackem crowd’s hostility towards Styles was tempered a little 20 minutes after the break, when Stoke were belatedly reduced to ten men after Matthew Etherington kicked out needlessly at Danny Collins, who was adjudged by Styles to have fouled the Stoke winger prior to being booted. It was a decision that would enrage their manager, Tony Pulis, whose frosty demeanour was only to harden moments later when his bedraggled side somehow missed a golden opportunity to take the lead as the ball broke to Fuller’s replacement, Henri Camara, inside the box from the free kick Collins had just conceded. His blast from four yard out beat Marton Fulop but not the crossbar, it spun high away to safety.
Ricky Sbragia responded to the red card by bringing on Carlos Edwards for Malbranque, and the pressure on the Stoke defence grew by the minute, with Reid creating chance after chance for Sunderland. Finally, on 78 minutes, another great ball in from the left by Reid was met by an even better header from Kenwyne Jones at the far post to break the deadlock and warm the spirits of the home support.
And Jones rounded off a Man of the Match performance on 90 minutes when he turned to beat his man and squared the ball from inside the box. It was met by late substitute David Healy, who neatly turned in his first and only Premier League goal for the club from a narrow angle at the far post.
It wasn’t the greatest of games, yet we all walked away from the ground cold but happy enough that day in the end. But, despite the fact that Stoke should have been one nil down and playing with nine men, the pugnacious Pulis still went after the gaff-prone Rob Styles in his post-match interview:
I don’t think it’s a red card. If he uses a little common sense I don’t think that’s a sending off. He’s not injured the player, he’s not booted him in a violent way. It’s very easy for referees to make decisions like that against some of the clubs that aren’t as big as some in this league.
Mr. Styles has not been very good to this football club over the years so whether we’ll get a chance to appeal I don’t know. We don’t ask for any more, just the same as what other clubs get. What I’m disappointed with is that there have been certain incidents where we’ve done exactly what other people have done and we get punished really severely for it.
Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia, however, fundamentally disagreed with Pulis’ protestations and praised both Jones and Healy’s goalscoring contributions:
If one of my players was sent off like that I’d fine them. It was undisciplined and you can’t afford to lose players in games. It was the right decision. Kenwyne is still getting fit but he’s a handful and he got the goal he deserved today. I would have been happy with 1-0 but credit to David Healy, he sniffed an opportunity and put it away
Today was really important for us. We needed three points to give us the cushion because we’ve now got two really difficult games away from home.
Rob Styles, whose decision-making errors had been well documented for years, didn’t last much longer as a Premier League referee. We went on to claim a point away against Arsenal but lost at Liverpool, and Sbragia’s side would struggle to find form again for the remainder of the season. Sunderland only managed one more victory, against relegation rivals Hull City, as we narrowly avoided the fate that ultimately awaited both Newcastle and Middlesbrough, leaving us the region’s sole representatives in the top flight.
Sunderland: Fulop, Bardsley, Ferdinand, Collins, McCartney, Malbranque (Edwards 70), Whitehead, Richardson, Reid (Murphy 82), Jones, Cisse (Healy 86). Subs not used: Gordon, Ben-Haim, Leadbitter, Davenport.
Stoke: Sorensen, Wilkinson (Pugh 18), Shawcross (Sonko 26), Abdoulaye Faye, Kelly, Cresswell, Whelan, Diao, Etherington, Fuller (Camara 30), Beattie. Subs not used: Simonsen, Olofinjana, Lawrence, Kitson.