WHERE to start? Have you watched a match of NINE versus ELEVEN (er, yes! Actually, I saw a game of EIGHT versus eleven on Saturday! See page 39 for match report. Sports Ed.)?
The nine were Brighton; the 11 were visitors to the Amex, Burnley.
Most fans were still getting comfortable when Albion’s Romain Vincelot was straight red-carded. Just five minutes had gone when Vincelot and Burnley player Marvin Bartley had a coming together.
Bartley caught Vincelot’s arm and the Albion player reacted by retaliating. This was missed by referee Craig Pawson but spotted by fourth official Andrew Laver. He called the ref over, told him of the push (or dig in the ribs) and, much to the surprise of the 20,000 in the stadium, Vincelot was sent off. Bartley escaped unpunished.
This decision left our fans confused and indignant. We weren’t going to get a proper game of football because of the fourth official’s account of an off-the-ball incident. Most didn’t see it. I did and thought it the sort of thing that often happens.
Albion played some attractive football despite being down to 10 men. Perhaps we could make a game of it?
Surely it wouldn’t get any worse? But it DID just six minutes later. Ashley Barnes and the Clarets skipper Chris McCann both went for a loose ball. Barnes managed to avoid the crunch of the McCann jump tackle and landed on top of him. The Burnley man grabbed Barnes round the throat.
Mr Pawson was close on hand and the crowd cheered when he produced the red card.
Obviously he was evening things up, we thought. WRONG! It was the Albion man made to walk.
Two straight reds in the first 11 minutes, down to nine men and the game hardly started. Disbelief turned to anger as Albion fans realised what had happened. Boos and whistles followed.
From the West Stand it looked a 50/50 ball with no real harm done.
I’ve watched the TV coverage several times since. The referee got it wrong. It was not two-footed or a high challenge by Barnes. It simply was not a red card. But the officials don’t have to justify their decisions. Effectively the officials had decided the match.
It wasn’t a game of football. It was a training ground exercise of attackers against defenders. And Brighton did brilliantly.
The game was won by a solitary goal. To be fair it was a fabulous strike from outside of the box by Kieran Tripper after 30 minutes.
Before this Albion’s manager Gus Poyet made a double substitution, bringing on Craig Noone and Alan Navarro for Kazenga LuaLua and Ryan Harley. He had his nine-man team playing 3-4-1, leaving Craig Mackail-Smith up front, the rest defending the area and using wing-backs.
Before the goal Noone managed one of his runs into the box and went down under the challenge from David Edgar. Penalty? No – assistant Stephen Rubery went for goal-kick.
You might think the decisions had spoilt the entertainment. In fact the courageous nine’s efforts drew tremendous support from the crowd. The team defended magnificently and kept the score to the one goal. They also managed to mount a challenge over the last 10 minutes in a brave attempt to snatch back a point. Mackail-Smith ran on to a through ball from Adam El-Abd and fired a fine attempt just past the post. Next he latched onto a ball from Noone to fire a high dipping shot just over.
Finally in added time he controlled a ball over his shoulder, shot, but the ball was blocked by keeper Lee Grant.
He then stabbed the rebound past the keeper only to see a defender on the line hook clear.
The Brighton players collapsed to the ground on the whistle. The nine had given their all.
One plus was the return from injury of El-Abd. He was forced to put in the full 90-minute stint and coped manfully.
Gus refused to comment on the decisions, but I mentioned last week that we had a discipline problem. Maybe the Albion boss must look at the wider picture and ask his players for greater self-control.
My take on these two red cards is as a Brighton fan. I do think one was harsh and one was wrong. Mr Pawson probably thinks he was brave and decisive but he unquestionably ruined a Championship game of football.
Brighton dropped down to tenth, three points below the play- offs. I’ll be at Reading on Boxing Day hoping to see us bounce back.
Meanwhile, I hope you all have a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS!