REFEREE Graham Poll found himself at the centre of controversy in the final minute of the Goodison derby when when he disallowed an Everton goal.
Sander Westerveld’s free-kick bounced off the back of Don Hutchison, who was not the required 10 yards away, and into the net. Everton surrounded the official, who ran to pick up the ball and signal that the game was over.
The Hertfordshire referee did not even re-start the game, which ended goalless, and later declared that the ball had not crossed the line before he blown for full-time.
"I looked at my watch and saw that it was the last kick of the game," he said afterwards. "We had had the correct amount of time for stoppages so I blew. I blew for time as he kicked the ball but some of the Everton players got excited as happens in derby games. But I was very clear in my own mind."
However manager Walter Smith accused the referee of "taking the easy way out."
"He said he blew for time, but by our estimations it was inside the two minutes being played for extra-time."
The goalless stalemate did not help either side, with fired-up Everton putting a dent in Liverpool’s Champions League hopes in the 162nd Mersey derby to set up Manchester United to seal the championship if they can win at Southampton today. The point did not help Everton's own ambitions of a place in Europe via the InterToto Cup.
Everton did their best to upset their closest neighbours, refusing to concede an inch on their own patch to the Anfield side, who have now lost only two of their last 26 league matches.
Everton have now lost only one of their last 11 games against the old enemy, and more that shook Gerard Houllier’s men.
Michael Owen saw three good chances saved well by Paul Gerrard, but veteran Mark Hughes should have won this game, his first Merseyside derby, when he shot wide when put clean through in the second half.
The opening was frantic and full blooded, as expected, and Liverpool’s teenage midfielder David Thompson managed to enrage Everton fans and get himself booked after just six minutes for a lunge at Nicky Barmby.
For those who like derbies raw and rough, this was the stuff to get the blood boiling, but from then on the fare was much tamer, Everton zipping the ball around midfield and looking classier, while Liverpool were forced to defend and break, with only limited effect.
At least Thompson had the right idea. Minutes before being booked he had gone down clutching his face after a challenge with Dave Unsworth, rolling over, only to jump up quickly when referee Graham Poll ignored him.
Thompson then clattered Barmby from behind before being cautioned straight afterwards, leaving the youngster walking a tightrope for the remainder of the game.
Everton took the initiative. After eight minutes Mark Hughes’ pass sent Barmby clear, only for his left-footer to be held low to his left by Westerveld.
Michael Owen had the best early chance on 12 minutes when Patrik Berger’s pass put him clear, but Paul Gerrard made an excellent save to his right.
Everton were playing their way neatly through midfield, first time touches and clever running, giving Liverpool plenty to worry about.
A 21st minute Barmby corner cleared a packed six-yard box, and was hooked wide from beyond the far post by Mark Hughes as the home side sought to turn their greater possession into something more positive.
John Collins was busy, pulling all the strings in Everton’s midfield, but there was little end product in the box in the opening half against Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz, despite the usual bullish efforts of veteran Hughes.
Liverpool had been pegged back, but one blistering break by Emile Heskey after 31 minutes almost broke the deadlock.
The ball went out to Thompson, whose cross was met by Owen with a hook shot that Gerrard somehow clawed down, Heskey had a dig at the loose ball before Richard Dunne hacked it clear.
Liverpool at times looked like they were patiently waiting to impose their quality on the proceedings, and at times were harrassed out of their stride by a totally committed Everton.
Heskey twice needed lengthy treatment after receiving a blow to his head before injuring his back as he crashed over Stephen Hughes. The game really began to hot up when Dietmar Hamann was booked after 43 minutes for a foul on Collins.
From the free-kick, Abel Xavier headed just wide of the post and Heskey collapsed again, holding his back and the England International didn’t make it for the second half, Robbie Fowler coming on as substitute, his first senior appearance since scoring against Wimbledon on December 28.
The second period was quicker, more competitive and a far better spectacle. It started with a searing run from Steven Gerrard, which ended with a close-range effort beaten away by Paul Gerrard, while at the other end a Dave Unsworth free-kick was lifted in to Mark Hughes, totally unmarked, and the Welshman had more time than he thought to turn and shoot, his effort skying over the top.
After 50 minutes Hughes again held off Hyypia and put Unsworth into space on the left for a low cross that Barmby cracked low to Westerveld’s right, the Dutch keeper needing to make a solid save.
Vegard Heggem came on for Thompson after 55 minutes, and a minute later Everton should have gone ahead when Mark Pembridge put Mark Hughes clear in the box, only for his national team boss to slide his shot wide of the far post.
Hughes then lofted a neat ball into Liverpool’s box for Hutchison to chase, only for Henchoz to make a superb saving tackle to hook the ball away at the last second.
Pembridge and then Collins – from 18 yards – both tested Westerveld, and fourth official Mike Riley was having his work cut out keeping calm on the bench with Smith, and Phil Thompson, both leaping around with an opinion on everything.
Pembridge, this time after a Hughes overhead kick, saw a stinging drive touched round the post by Westerveld after 71 minutes.
Hamann could have scored when he surged through on the right to fire wide of the far post, but still it was Everton who were the more forceful and when the Liverpool defence failed to clear a corner, Barmby clipped the ball back in and both David Weir and Hutchison could have scored in a frantic six-yard box scramble.
Mark Hughes gave way to Francis Jeffers for the last 10 minutes, but Patrik Berger could have settled the issue after 82 minutes with a scorching run and drive, beaten out by Gerrard.
Henchoz got himself into the book for bringing down Jeffers in full flow as the battle heated up further – and it reached boiling point with the Hutchison incident at the end.
© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo