There was a time at the turn of the millennium when referees called Graham who lived in Tring weren’t overly welcomed at the Stadium of Light.
Graham ‘three-card-trick’ Poll had felt the wrath of the crowd when sending off both Michael Gray and Alex Rae in our top-of-the-table clash against Manchester United in January 2001, while his best mate Graham Barber certainly didn’t fair any better a week and a half later as our now fourth-placed lads took on Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool, who were also jostling for the upper reaches of the league.
It was a full-blooded, hugely competitive. 100 miles per hour type of game – one which typified the very best of the Peter Reid era at Sunderland. And, given Poll’s antics in the previous home game, there was an incredibly low tolerance threshold for Mr Barber.
The lads never gave an inch – closing Liverpool down and getting stuck into the opposition, which once again created an intimidating atmosphere at the Stadium.
So, in truth, it wasn’t the easiest game to referee. In the opening exchanges, the ‘other thing from Tring’ had stern words for Micky Gray, Niall Quinn and Reidy himself, as tackles flew in – Gray and Don Hutchison picking up first-half yellows.
It was Hutch who had Sunderland’s first chance of the game, missing the ball completely as it was played across the box, while Stefan Schwarz, Niall Quinn and Stan Varga all had first half efforts – Fowler and Gerrard having sights on goal for the away team.
The competitive nature of the game continued through the second half, and it was the lads who drew first blood.
Hutchison, the former Liverpool midfielder who’d made a huge impact at Sunderland since his summer arrival from Everton, scored six minutes into the second half.
Phillips drove towards the box and appeared to be fouled by Sami Hyypia – the ‘other thing from Tring’ ignored claims from the crowd and Kev; Liverpool made a mess of clearing the ball, which fell to Hutchison, who thundered it past Sander Westerveld.
After that it was all Sunderland, as the lads went in search of the second goal that would kill off the game – but as the game ticked on we’d reckoned without Mr Barber.
As the lads poured forward, Liverpool hit us on the break. Thirty-seven-year-old Gary McAllister – who was enjoying something of an Indian summer at Liverpool – drove towards the Sunderland goal, with Stan Varga giving chase.
Now, McAllister in his pomp was never a speed merchant, never mind in his late 30s. Unfortunately, pace was never in Varga’s repertoire, either.
A slow-motion chase ensued, with Varga eventually bringing McAllister down somewhere nearer the half way line than the edge of the box. McAllister himself, Tom Daley-esque, into the box. And Mr Barber, in his infinite wisdom, decided he’d seen enough to conclusively award a penalty.
Now, we’ve seen some bad penalty decisions go against us at the Stadium of Light. Leon Osman being awarded a penalty by Howard Webb for tripping himself up is one that often springs to mind; Wigan’s Henri Camera getting a spot kick for slipping on a crisp packet another.
But this one – as far as I’m concerned – is the worst. So far.
Sub Jari Litmanan – an early change for the injured Heskey – slotted the ball past Sorensen, and drew the game level.
Sunderland – on and off the field – were furious; and it could have cost us dearly, with Liverpool looking the more likely to grab the three points.
But Sunderland hung on – and for the second home game in a row we were all left focusing on the inept performance of an official.
A win could have been pivotal in the season – we were already three without a win, and would only win another three as, for the second successive year, we ran out of steam early in the new year.
Sunderland 1-1 Liverpool
Hutchison 51, Litmanen (pen) 78
Sunderland: Sorensen, Williams, Gray, Varga, Makin, Hutchison, Schwarz, McCann, Arca (Kilbane 69), Quinn, Phillips. Subs: Macho, Dichio, Oster, McCartney.
Liverpool: Westerveld, Babbel, Hyypia, Henchoz, Vignal, Hamann, Gerrard (Owen 56), McAllister, Biscan (Wright 86), Heskey (Litmanen 27), Fowler. Subs: Diomede, Nielsen.