Liverpool’s ten-game winning run came to and end at the Reebok Stadium yesterday on a pitch that looked even more tired than the Liverpool players who tried to play football on it. At the end of the game there was a feeling that referee Mark Clattenburg and his assistants were perhaps also worn out after the heavy Christmas schedule, certainly they had not had one of their better days, with numerous incidents missed or called wrongly. The one person that seems to have suffered most of all from the busy period though was Bolton manager Sam Allardyce. Tiredness is one possibility at least, as he gave the impression after the game that he’d been hallucinating for the 90 minutes of the match. His comments after the game certainly suggest he saw things differently to most other people.
Bolton’s players got an extra day off over Christmas, their undersoil heating failure leading to an FA investigation after Alex Ferguson complained, but Sam wouldn’t have benefited too much from that fixture being cancelled. Maybe he wasn’t tired, and felt if he complained enough about nothing it would divert attention away from the offences of his own players.
Allardyce was bitter after the game, claiming that Liverpool should have ended the game with nine men, with Gerrard and Sissoko guilty in his eyes of dangerous play. He said: “There are clear and serious events which Liverpool have been guilty of that have not been dealt with. Gerrard stamped on Nolan and Sissoko stamped on Diouf. It is serious foul play. The incidents are plain, clear and obvious. It’s difficult, I know, for referees in a split second but it couldn’t be anything less than intentional. Gerrard stamped on Nolan, and Sissoko stamped on Diouf. Both should have been sent off. It is not anything other than intentional from my point of view and that is sad. Sad, because the outcome would probably have been three points for us rather than a draw. We went in front twice and maybe would not have lost the lead. I am pleased with the overall performance but not pleased with result after the decisions that were made by the referee.”
Rather than commenting straight away on what Sam said, we thought we’d have another look at the incidents, with all of the benefits of slow motion and rewind. If what Allardyce said turned out to be true, then no doubt FA charges would follow for Liverpool’s players. If false, then the charges should be levelled at Allardyce, along with charges for any of his players that had overstepped the mark.
Looking at the first of the two “stamping” incidents in the game, the one involving Sissoko and Diouf, it was quite clear what really happened. In full view of referee Clattenburg, Diouf fell to the ground as if hit by sniper fire from the stands. Contact from Djimi Traore was minimal if at most. As Traore is looking at the referee in shock at the blatant “simulation” from Diouf, in comes Momo Sissoko to get on with the game. Diouf had fallen onto the ball in his attempts to win the foul, and with the referee making it clear that he wasn’t awarding a foul Sissoko came over to collect the ball.
There was contact with the back of Diouf’s knee – minimal contact – but only because Sissoko was trying to collect the ball. If anything it was clumsy, but if Diouf hadn’t tried to cheat the referee then he wouldn’t have been in that position. The referee clearly saw the incident; he was looking straight at it as it happened. It certainly wasn’t a stamp – Sissoko was trying to get at the ball and did not stand on the player – and afterwards Diouf was complaining about the front of his knee.
This was just one of numerous incidents where Diouf was clearly seen to dive, to feign injury, to try and get something out of the referee when there was nothing to get. So the FA should now perhaps look at Diouf’s actions in the game to see how many bookings he should have got and to see whether there were enough for a sending off.
The other “stamping” incident involved Steven Gerrard and Kevin Nolan. According to Allardyce, Gerrard intentionally stamped on Nolan: “Gerrard looks at Kevin before he does it and in a game of football that needs to be punished. The referee hasn’t seen it – we don’t want the FA seeing it afterwards.”
Steven Gerrard did stand on Nolan with one of his feet, leaving stud marks on his opponent’s chest. That isn’t in dispute, what is in dispute is whether it was intentional. Looking at the incident again, Steven Gerrard was in the air, Nolan rolled into the part of the pitch were Gerrard was set to land, Gerrard looks down to see where he can land. In mid-air, at high-speed, there was little he could do. He tried not to land on a player that is actually his mate off the field, but despite all of his qualities and undoubted skill, he’s not yet learned how to fly.
The actual player hurt by Gerrard admitted himself it was an accident. No doubt he was angry after it happened, who wouldn’t be if they were in what is no doubt quite a painful injury, but Nolan was not going to join his manager in condemning something that couldn’t have been avoided: “I don’t think it was intentional – I have seen the incident and it was just one of those things. I was disappointed and wanted to have a look at it but I didn’t see much wrong with it. I thought it might have been deliberate at the time because he hurt me. I wanted to have a look at it and I have now and I don’t think there was anything in it.”
Clearly mindful of his manager’s attempts to get Gerrard in trouble, Nolan said it shouldn’t lead to any further action: “I would not want anything to happen to him now because it was an accident. His full weight was on his leg so it hurt but it’s just one of those things. I don’t think anything should happen to him now because it would not be deserved.”
Gerrard himself was actually quite shocked at what Allardyce had accused him of: “I’m very surprised he is trying to make an issue of it.” Gerrard is a good friend of Nolan’s – Nolan was a fellow member of the Liverpool academy before Steve Heighway let him slip through the net – and Gerrard couldn’t contemplate hurting his mate: “It was a complete accident. I am mates with Kevin Nolan. He’s a good Scouser so why would I ever try to deliberately hurt him? We spoke at the end of the match. I wished him all the best for the rest of the season and the tackle wasn’t even mentioned.”
Looking at this it seems quite a straightforward decision for the FA to make: Steven Gerrard did nothing wrong, Allardyce was stirring up trouble and so any charges for this incident need to be aimed at the Bolton manager for his false accusations.
Liverpool’s manager Rafael Benitez was outraged at the actions of Bolton throughout the game, and how the referee seemed unwilling to clamp down on it.: “Perhaps they have other rules here but the referee should protect the players who want to play football. Bolton were diving all the time and you know they like free-kicks.” He was asked if he was talking about Diouf in particular over the diving, which he quite clearly was, but he just replied: “Everyone in England knows what Diouf is like but today someone clearly didn’t.”
Allardyce will be pleased he managed to frustrate Liverpool, and listening to Benitez, an honest man, after the game the Spaniard was clearly unhappy with what Bolton had got away with: “We had some players tired and we tried some fresh legs. We tried to change the position of players, we tried to play long, short and wide but it was difficult because a team like Bolton like to stop the game. This kind of game is very difficult. I am very disappointed. We had done a lot of good things to win. We created a lot of chances but Bolton made it very difficult to play the type of game I like. Peter Crouch tried to jump but he couldn’t. It was impossible for him. There were a lot of free-kicks against us. Why?”
The fact that Liverpool didn’t see it as a lost cause says a lot about how they have improved in temperament as a team under Benitez. He was pleased with the qualities his team showed: “We showed strong character to come back from 2-1. We played really well and created a lot of chances. But we showed strong character in the second half when we were playing well, but losing. When we conceded the second goal we changed things. We swapped the energy of Sissoko for the quality of Alonso and we started controlling the game.”
Both Bolton’s goals were controversial – the first came from a free-kick awarded because Steve Finnan was shielding the ball from Stelios for a throw-in. The referee will probably not agree with his own decision if he watches it again – certainly after a similar incident involving Cisse was not awarded to the Reds late in the game. Bolton’s second goal came after Kevin Davies had received the ball in an offside position, allowing him to find Diouf with his cross. Allardyce glossed over this and instead chose to complain about a borderline offside that went against his team, and a penalty shout which was certainly a possibility for Bolton. It was only a possibility though, because it could have gone as a free-kick to Liverpool just as easily.
Another issue Allardyce failed to talk about was when his player Faye was only booked for a two footed lunge – he could, and perhaps should, have been sent off for what clearly was deliberate, and clearly was serious foul play.
In fact all things considered, we don’t really think Allardyce had hallucinated, nor do we think he’d seen a different game. We think he was trying to deflect attention away from his own team’s misdemeanours as quickly as possible. El-Hadji Diouf continued to prove why he was never worthy of wearing the Red shirt, yet Allardyce sees nothing wrong with it. Let’s hope the FA see through it and see fit to punish this manager in a way that will make him think twice in future before trying to ruin the reputations of innocent players.