It was almost inevitable that Liverpool’s first home Premier League match since the findings of the Hillsborough inquiry were released would provide passion, emotion and stout physical confrontation. With Manchester United providing the opposition, it was also likely that Anfield, where the home team were straining for their first win of the season, would need a strong refereeing performance.
Alas, that important ingredient went badly missing. On a day when the fans of both teams generally behaved well, and when Liverpool underlined the enormous potential their young squad has, the Reds were badly let down. Though the sentiments are unlikely to have been shared by Manchester United’s fans, anyone else watching on from the sidelines must have found it a terribly sad occasion – like watching a wedding ruined by a drunk priest.
Halsey had three massive decisions to make in the game. He got them all wrong, and in each case Manchester United profited enormously— so much so that it would be very hard to argue that Liverpool would have failed to win the game had he got them all right.
For the sake of authenticity, I will freely admit that I have supported Liverpool since I was a child -though I don’t believe I would be writing this any differently if I had no interest in the club. I also concede that of the three decisions ref Halsey got wrong, two were not entirely straightforward.
But this leads us back to the beginning – a huge match needs a referee at the top of his game and nobody quite knew why Halsey was given this fixture. It seemed a surprising appointment given that he had only refereed one Premier League game so far this season, Tottenham v Norwich, in which he harshly dismissed Tom Huddlestone. At 51, he is the oldest official available at this level.
Let us start at the beginning. With Manchester United somewhat off-colour throughout the first half, and Liverpool knocking on the door looking for an opener, a ball spins loose in midfield. Liverpool’s Jonjo Shelvey and Manchester United’s Jonny Evans are both committed to winning it.
Halsey decides Shelvey has flown in with his studs showing, which perhaps he has – but so too has Jones. The two men are practically a mirror image of each other as they leave the ground to get to the ball. What should the ref do here? He could send both off, and give the free kick one way or another. A more prudent tactic would be to dish out a couple of yellows and issue a warning. Unthinkably, Halsey instead sends off one player – Shelvey — and says nothing to the other one.
So, Liverpool are playing with 10 men for most of the game, which is locked at 1-1 and gathering in excitement and intensity when Luis Suarez is clearly fouled in the box by that man Evans. Penalty? No, says Halsey — and in the final exchanges he then makes his third error by awarding Manchester United a penalty the other way with Antonio Valencia rather oddly collapsing after Glen Johnson gets across to challenge him.
Needless to say, Robin van Persie buries the spot-kick and Liverpool’s wait for a first win continues.
Now, here’s a thought. Does it not cross Halsey’s befuddled, confused brain at some point that — up until giving Manchester United their penalty — he’s not been too generous to the home team? Surely at half-time he must have reviewed the Shelvey-Evans footage and considered he’d got that one wrong. He must have at least sensed the Suarez penalty was a close call. So, it being his last chance to emerge from the game with some sort of credit, Halsey sees the Valencia-Johnson incident and again sides with the visiting team. It really beggars belief.
Manchester United have had an odd season. After losing to Everton in their first match, they edged past Fulham and looked likely to lose to Southampton until Van Persie’s late intervention. They easily beat Wigan but clearly got lucky on Sunday – Ferguson afterwards said he felt they’d been poor.
The scary thing for everyone else is this: what happens when Manchester United click into gear? They are just one point short of Chelsea now, who needed a late Ashley Cole goal to see off Stoke, and three points clear of both Arsenal and Manchester City, who played out an exciting draw at the Etihad Stadium.
For all their history and global, if largely historic billing, Liverpool are on two points from five games. Their next three Premier League games are not the hardest – against Norwich, Stoke and Reading. Frankly, they desperately need to win two of those games. It’s great having youngsters with potential, but are we really looking ahead to the 2015-16 season? I don’t think so. Whatever they may say publicly, there’s no way the American owners will accept a mid-table finish and no Cup trophies this season.