Graeme Anderson’s Sunderland match report: With Friends like these ...

Sunderland's Wes Brown leaves the pitch after being shown a red card for a challenge on Stoke City's Charlie Adam.
Sunderland's Wes Brown leaves the pitch after being shown a red card for a challenge on Stoke City's Charlie Adam.
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ONE measure of a good referee is that he should be the last person you are talking about at the end of a match.

Good referees should be seen and heard but remain as incidental as possible to the game, in a sport where the primary attraction should always be the football itself.

In making the above two observations, I wondered if there were better summations of good refereeing, so I googled and the first page brought up a Metro newspaper blog in which the ref in Southampton’s opening game of the season was being slated as the worst example of officiating.

The referee was Kevin Friend, and one of the chief criticisms made was that he was too whistle-happy – seeing almost every challenge as a foul.

This was interesting, given that it was a wonderfully-timed challenge from Wes Brown in Sunderland’s game against Stoke at the weekend which was deemed to be a straight red by Friend.

Ironic too, when considering that the worst tackle of the game – a studs-up, head-high karate kick clearance by Stoke City keeper Asmir Begovic which saw the Bosnian’s boot land in the chest of Steven Fletcher – went unpunished by Friend, who initially waved play on.

Somehow, the official had managed to send off a player for the best challenge of the game and allow to go unpunished a reckless challenge which would have taken Fletcher’s head off had he not implemented evasive action.

These are big, big calls to get so badly wrong.

And so, sadly, and rightly, they have put Friend’s judgement once again in the spotlight because although this November fixture might have looked low key to outsiders, both bosses, Mark Hughes and Gus Poyet knew there was lot at stake in this early six-pointer.

Defeat leaves Sunderland back on the bottom of the table, six places behind Saturday’s opponents in the table; victory would have put Sunderland on level terms.

The difference between success and failure in the Premier League can be so thin; sometimes as narrow as a whistle poorly blown or a red card unwisely flourished.

That was the case for Sunderland on Saturday and it was hard lines on them and their fans because although the Black Cats were 1-0 down when Brown was dismissed in the 36th minute, they had played the better football and the game looked as though it might be heading towards a fascinating conclusion.

Sunderland went into the match having not won away from home but boosted by three wins in their last four games.

And they were, unsurprisingly, unchanged from the side which defeated Manchester City 1-0 at the Stadium of Light on its last outing.

Their football might have been solid rather than sparkling in the opening stages of the game but they still outshone troubled opponents, understandably preoccupied as they went in search of their first win in nine Premier League games

Sunderland produced the first meaningful attack of the game in the seventh minute when Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson linked well to tee up Jack Colback for a shot that was deflected out for a corner.

And the visitors went closer than that twice more before the quarter-hour was up.

In the 13th minute Steven Fletcher brought down a long ball into the area from Adam Johnson and swivelled on a shot which Begovic was lucky to deflect behind.

And then a minute later, Robert Huth, under pressure from Fletcher, was grateful to see a mis-timed interception cleared off his line by fellow centre-half Ryan Shawcross with Begovic beaten.

In response, all Stoke could mustered was a Charlie Adam free-kick from the left which missed its target area - landing on the roof of Vito Mannone’s net - and a hopeful penalty appeal after Marko Arnautovic drove a shot straight at John O’Shea from close range.

Encounters between these two sides have been trademark dour in recent seasons but with new managers at the helm this was a different game - open and positive - with more good football in the opening 20 minutes than are usually seen in this fixture in the whole 90.

Practicing their patient, passing game, Sunderland managed to get themselves on top, so it was against the run of play that Stoke took the lead - Adam marking his 100th Premier League appearance with the opening goal on the half hour.

The danger came down the right where full-back Geoff Cameron flighted a ball up to Steven Nzonzi who was held up by Sunderland midifelder Ki Sung-Yueng on the right, inside the area.

The Frenchman might have tried wriggling a shot from a narrow angle but instead he intelligently held on to the ball before pulling it back to Adam who raced unmarked into the penalty area and from 17 yards drove a low right foot shot to Mannone’s right to put his side ahead.

Sunderland were stung but were regrouping - Brown showing exactly the determination needed when he thundered forward to drive a ball clear near the half-way line and clipped Adam on the follow-through as the Scot leaped out of the way.

It was a typically committed challenge, the type so appreciated and applauded in English football. But, to Brown’s disbelief and Poyet’s enragement, Friend didn’t see it that way, pausing for several seconds before flourishing a red card.

This was only the second red card of Brown’s entire career - his only other dismissal coming in the white-hot heat of a Liverpool-Man United game on Merseyside more than eight years ago - and while he might not have expected a round of applause from Friend after his muscular lunge for the ball on Saturday, he could not believe his eyes when he saw the referee’s judgement.

It was an incredible decision - the ball had been there to be won and Brown had won it cleanly.

If Brown was disbelieving, Poyet was distraught.

And briefly, the Sunderland head coach looked as though he had lost it altogether - to be deprived of your best defender is a blow at the best of times but to lose him so unjustly, right in front of you was almost too much for the Uruguayan to take.

Thankfully, he recovered his composure enough to bring on centre-half Valentin Roberge in place of attacker Giaccherini as he shored up his team and the visitors saw the game through to half-time without further incident.

Sunderland’s fine rearguard action at Hull City in their previous away game - when they had kept a clean sheet in the second-half with only nine men - must have given the Wearsiders some belief during the interval.

So too must have memories of the last encounter between the two teams, back in May, when Craig Gardner’s sending off had reduced Sunderland to 10 men but they had still gone on to overturn a 1-0 deficit and gain a draw..

There was also the fact that no team had lost more points from winning positions this season than Stoke.

Poyet rearranged his side, deploying a three-man midfield with Johnson ranging just behind Fletcher and the Black Cats started the second half positively, more than holding their own up to the hour mark.

In fact a long-range Bardsley shot in the 55th minute which stung the gloves of Begovic and a smart shot from distance by Johnson which drifted just wide of the keeper’s left-hand post were the closest either side came to breaking the deadlock before the 70th minute.

Stoke had little to show for their extra man up to that point - a tame Peter Crouch header straight at Mannone, a thrashed shot from Adam high over the Sunderland’s keeper’s bar.

And the game could have turned dramatically Sunderland’s way in the 73rd minute with Begovic’s dangerous challenge flattening Fletcher who - unlike Adam with Brown for the sending off - had been favourite to win the ball.

The only card the referee flourished though was a yellow at Larsson for protesting. You couldn’t make it up.

As the game turned towards home, Sunderland would have entertained hope of raising their game in search of an equaliser after producing a really spirited second-half display.

But those hopes were dashed in the 80th minute when the excellent Adam fed the ball forward to Crouch on the counter-attack and the ex-England striker’s perfect through ball set up Nzonzi on the right of goal to sidef-oot a right foot shot across the advancing Mannone.

Arnautovic might have made it three goals to the good in time added on - dragging his shot wide when clean through on goal - but that would have been harsh on Sunderland who had shown such composure in the first half and such determination in the second.

Defeat sent Sunderland back to the foot of the league - their plight still critical; Stoke have gained breathing pace, though they look far from out of the woods.

At the final whistle though, few people were thinking too much of such things.

Instead, all attention was focused on our Friend in the middle.