In 2001, referees in English football became professional for the first time. This was a huge overhaul of the management, training and development of match officials. Unfortunately for Liverpool, there was nothing resembling an improvement in refereeing standards at Anfield today, as Mark Halsey made three disastrous decisions that unjustly gifted all of the points to a poor Manchester United side.
As Anfield remembered the 96 fans that lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool played with the kind of passion, verve, commitment and desire that the occasion demanded. In Halsey though, there was a referee who seemed to want to see anything but passion on show in this encounter. In 2001, we were promised an increase in consistency from officials as they would ‘sit down together and watch videos of incidence which have caused controversy.’ If they are to sit and watch a video of the controversial referring moments in this match then their meeting may last quite some time.
Liverpool bossed the game; they bossed possession and looked like the side that would go on to a deserved win, securing their first three points of the Premier League season in the process. Had there been a referee capable of getting the so-called ‘controversial decisions’ right then Liverpool fans would rightly be delighted this afternoon. Instead, Halsey got a sending off decision wrong, awarded a penalty where there was no contact and denied Liverpool a penalty where the defender made contact only with the boot of Luis Suarez and not the ball. After everything that was said before the game about ending the animosity between the two sides, the performance of Halsey will only have served to increase the bad feeling between the two sets of fans, with Jonjo Shelvey remonstrating with Alex Ferguson, about his long rumoured influence over referees, as he left the field.
Just before half time, as Liverpool sought an opening goal before the break, Shelvey launched into a tackle against Johnny Evans for a ’50-50 ball.’ Evans launched into the tackle with the same level of force and with his studs up. As Shelvey got back to his feet, Evans decided to stay down. As he rolled around, Halsey bought the suggestion that Shelvey had been the perpetrator and summarily issued a red card to the Liverpool midfielder. This was the first big mistake of the afternoon by Halsey and, where they had previously looked lost, it gave United hope of at least getting something from the game.
Liverpool were not ready to lie down and came out in the second half determined to get something from their efforts. This looked highly likely when Steven Gerrard showed his usual blend of skill and strength to take the ball on his chest and turn the ball into the net at the Kop end with his left foot. On this occasion, Halsey was unable to intervene; the goal standing and Liverpool taking a highly deserved lead.
As expected, United did not lie down and came back at Liverpool with a renewed determination. With Liverpool suddenly on the back foot, and the extra man making a difference, United equalised with a curler into the top corner that left Pepe Reina with little chance. Now there was a game on, still eleven against ten but a real game and Liverpool were doing all they could to make it a spectacle, battling with all they had to get a result on what was a momentous day for the club, the fans and the team.
So, just as it was again becoming a game worth watching, Halsey was ready to intervene once more. As Manchester United’s Valencia charged forward into the Liverpool box, Glen Johnson chased him from the halfway line and got back in time to put his body in between the United player and Pepe Reina. As Valencia went down, the referee seized his chance and awarded a penalty, to the utter bemusement of everybody watching, commentating and attending the game. 2-1 to United and Liverpool had it all to do again.
Liverpool pressed once more and, following a great run from the Luis Suarez, the forward found himself in the United box with a chance to get a shot on goal. As Suarez turned to get his shot away, the United defender made a tackle that made no contact with the football and took the forward’s foot away. With Halsey standing behind the play, in the perfect position to witness the foul, he had to give a penalty. But no, this was Luis Suarez and Halsey was not going to give him anything this afternoon.
Having given everything they had to give, the Liverpool players left the field with nothing but the feeling that they had been totally and utterly robbed. Justice for the 96 yes, but no justice for the Liverpool team this afternoon. It surely is time to look again at the poor quality of referring in this country. Unfortunately making them professional does not seem to have increased either their ability or accountability. Thanks to Halsey we are again discussing the standard of refereeing and not the standard of the football.