‘There’s a man goin’ ‘round takin’ names/And he decides who to free and who to blame/Everybody won’t be treated all the same/When the man comes around.’
Those were the words of the original ‘Man in Black’, the late Johnny Cash,
During our stint in the EFL, many other men in black have come around with depressing regularity and it’s difficult to escape the feeling, blinkered though it may be, that not all teams have been treated the same.
Most fans succumb to victimhood when analysing refereeing performances but it’s often felt like Sunderland have been on the receiving end of the officials’ capricious dispensation of justice.
Our return to the Championship was meant to liberate us from the lottery of the dodgy decision but with games typically being tighter at this level, poor refereeing amplifies the sense of injustice, with their impact having a greater influence on the end result.
The Blackburn away game in October springs to mind, as does the bewilderingly allowed decisive goal in our home defeat to Sheffield United, but perceptions aside, are we genuinely getting a more unfair crack of the whip than other teams?
The red cards that have turned games in our opponents’ favour, against the likes of Hull, Sheffield United and Swansea, hardly fell into the ‘travesty of justice’ category, yet there’s still a niggling feeling that especially at home, referees aim to demonstrate their immunity from crowd pressure by making big calls against us.
Ironically, their conscious efforts to display objective professionalism often leave them looking decidedly amateurish.
Bemoaning the inadequacy of officials has become a weekly ritual, so it’s only fair to give credit where it’s due.
When Burnley entertained Sunderland on Friday night, complete with some fawning claret-and-blue-tinted Sky Sports coverage, we could’ve been forgiven for expecting the man in the middle to dutifully fulfil his role in ensuring the narrative of an unstoppable Vincent Kompany-led juggernaut went to script.
The appearance of Alastair Campbell in the pre-match buildup, a man well acquainted with controlling the narrative, only served to heighten such fears as the association between proven dodgy dossiers and potential dodgy decisions became impossible to overlook.
Stepping into such a situation, the night’s referee, Jarred Gillett, deserves praise for his razor sharp perception of the game that unfolded before him.
It’s difficult to be objective when appraising officials’ handling of games but this seemed to be a genuinely even-handed performance rather than a rare case of a referee making bad calls in our favour for once.
Admittedly, there were moments where I breathed a sigh of relief as decisions went our way, but this tended to be relief borne from past experience of expecting incompetence yet unexpectedly receiving justice.
In contrast, it’s hard to see how Burnley supporters could feel aggrieved at such decisions.
Luke O’Nien’s early challenge on the touchline was robust and may have received a yellow from a referee short-sighted enough to not appreciate the dangerous precedent he’d be setting so early in the game.
Instead, Gillett had a forthright chat with O’Nien to make him aware of the tightrope he was now clearly walking.
I’m sure Burnley would disagree, but this seemed proportionate and the message wasn’t lost on O’Nien, who appeared to rein in his more ebullient instincts in the knowledge that Gillett couldn’t be so easily hoodwinked.
Similarly, many other officials may have been poorly positioned when Dan Neil initially went for a challenge in the box but pulled out.
From the wrong angle, the movement would’ve looked like a stonewall penalty but Gillett was positioned well enough to see that there was little contact made and subsequently made the correct decision.
In the heat of the moment, I felt aggrieved at the lack of a yellow card for the offending diver but Gillett gave reasonable benefit of the doubt on the understanding that the player may have been unbalanced.
In the second half, the commentary team seemed to feel that Josh Cullen’s tame but cynical foul in the middle of the park was harshly punished with a yellow card.
Although replays of the foul in isolation backed up their case, it nonetheless divorced the offence from the context.
Sunderland were in a position to spread the play wide to the left to catch Burnley on the break. Cullen knew this, prevented the pass from being made, and it was a classic case of ‘taking one for the team’, with the player getting what he deserved.
The only other yellow in a free flowing game was also incontestable, with Ian Maatsen being rightly punished for a reckless dive in on Trai Hume.
Although there would’ve been a beautiful sense of poetic justice if Jack Clarke’s ‘goal’ was allowed to stand after the travesty of Sheffield United’s winner, the right call was made with Abdoullah Ba standing miles offside and clearly distracting their goalkeeper.
Maybe our fortuitous penalty against Luton will have to stand as compensation for the injustice against the Blades.
Throughout the game, there were only two calls that the referee got wrong and on both occasions there were mitigating factors at play.
Lynden Gooch was clearly fouled when shepherding the ball behind but a goal kick was given.
Personally, I’d rather have been given the goal kick than a free kick on the touchline, but Gooch seemed incensed and given the tendency of referees to punish open criticism of their ineptitude, he’d be well advised to choose his battles.
In any case, this was more of an assistant referee’s call, who had a much better view of the incident that despite being incorrectly interpreted, was ultimately inconsequential.
The other mistake saw the rare sight of a referee owning up to his failure.
With a Burnley player being harassed in possession and facing his own goal, Gillett rightly blew for a foul with little sign of any advantage accruing.
He couldn’t have foreseen the Houdini-like trickery that saw the Burnley player escaping the shackles and being in a position to launch an attack, and acknowledged that his premature whistle deprived the Clarets of a promising attacking opportunity.
This honesty and humility only served to strengthen the impression of a referee in full control of the game and having the confidence of both the players and his own convictions.
Overall, Friday night’s match offered plenty of hope for Sunderland.
Depleted by injuries, we acquitted ourselves admirably against the standout performers in the league, as well as showing impressive strength in depth, superb discipline and excellent defensive resilience.
Such performances bode well for our prospects next season, but it was Gillett’s performance that perhaps offered the brightest beacon of hope. It went some way to dispelling some of the despair that, however well we might play, our fate is always destined to lie in the hands of inept referees.