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Sunderland struck by the Tring thing

Should Sunderland's unlikely challenge for a Champions League berth peter out, Mackems may point accusing fingers less at their team's few shortcomings and more at an innocuous commuter town in Hertfordshire.

Ten days after Graham Poll failed to spot Andy Cole's handball in the build-up to the Manchester United goal that ended a nine-month unbeaten home record, along came Tring's other officiating Graham - Barber - to scupper a first home win against Liverpool in 43 years.

With three players reported for over-zealous celebrations and a ridiculous penalty award wrecking Sunderland's afternoon, at least a linesman ruled out a legitimate late goal from Robbie Fowler to spare them the injustice of a third successive league defeat.

Even one point was hard on Sunderland. After a prickly first half they were revitalised after the interval and, after only six minutes, Kevin Phillips advanced into the area only to be bulldozed off the ball by Sami Hyypia, prompting frenzied protests from the bench. Play continued and Gregory Vignal, the young French full-back who narrowly lost out to Barber for the "most torrid afternoon" award, scuffed his clearance against Stefan Schwarz. Don Hutchison gathered the loose ball and blasted past Sander Westerveld, who was unsighted by the dithering Frenchman.

Hutchison, who played 45 league games for Liverpool earlier in his career, tore off towards the north stand to celebrate, leaping over the advertising hoarding to bury himself in the ecstatic supporters. He was joined by Gavin McCann and Julio Arca; all three have been reported to the Football Association.

"You score a goal, celebrate and get reported," said Hutchison. "That sums him [Barber] up. The gaffer just laughed when he heard. When the ref came over I thought he was going to send me off, because I'd already been booked. When you score, particularly against your old club, you can't just put your finger up in the air and walk away."

The advantage gleaned, Sunderland could have put the match beyond their disjointed opponents. Arca, who arrived on an 18-hour flight from South America only on Thursday, lobbed just over the bar and Phillips's low shot was deflected wide by the scurrying Westerveld. But with the flashes of yellow cards growing ever more frequent, the penalty spared the visitors a pointless journey.

Michael Owen, on for the injured Steven Gerrard, spun and slid a precise pass through the centre of Sunderland's rearguard for Gary McAllister to chase. The 36-year-old Scot has been sufficiently reinvigorated at Liverpool to announce that he is willing to return to the international game after a two-year absence, but he failed to escape the defence fully and had his heel clipped by Stanislav Varga's desperate challenge while clearly outside the area. In keeping with the officials' baffling display, a penalty was awarded, although the outstanding Slovakian, booked nine minutes earlier, somehow escaped a red card.

"It was never a penalty," said Hutchison. "We asked Mr Barber to consult his linesman and he did, but he couldn't help him at all. It's going to be hard to challenge Liverpool for that third place now after this draw. They're a better side than us with better players." One of them, Jari Litmanen, sent Thomas Sorensen the wrong way from the spot to claim his first Liverpool goal since joining from Barcelona last month.

Liverpool's manager Gérard Houllier, apparently unsighted over the penalty, could see enough from the dugout to rule Fowler's strike "a good goal". The draw kept his side a point clear of their hosts with a game in hand, although an ankle injury to Emile Heskey and Gerrard's sore groin left him fretting as Thursday's Uefa Cup trip to Roma looms large.

Sunderland (0) 1 - 1 (0) Liverpool
Hutchison (51)
Litmanen (78) pen

Sunderland
Sorensen; Gray, Makin, Varga, Williams; Arca, Hutchison, McCann, Schwarz; Phillips, Quinn.

Liverpool
Westerveld; Babbel, Henchoz, Hyypia, Vignal; Biscan, Gerrard, Hamann, McAllister; Fowler, Heskey.

Referee: G. P. Barber (Tring)

Attendance: 47,553

Bookings
Sunderland: Gray (5) Hutchison (39) Varga (69) Williams (72) Phillips (78)
Liverpool: Vignal (40) Litmanen (59) Hyypia (70) Biscan (70)

Sent off
None

Free-kicks

Sunderland: 15
Liverpool: 25

Corners

Sunderland: 4
Liverpool: 6

Goal attempts

Sunderland: 9
Liverpool: 8

On target

Sunderland: 6
Liverpool: 4

Hit woodwork

Sunderland: 0
Liverpool: 0

Offsides

Sunderland: 9
Liverpool: 6

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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