Phil Smith's verdict: Bizarre calls overshadow pulsating contest & leaves League One race closer than ever

The game was rather summed up when Luton Town broke upfield, just under ten minutes left on the clock.

Saturday, 12th January 2019, 10:20 pm
Updated Saturday, 12th January 2019, 10:34 pm
A controversial penalty secured a point for Luton Town at the Stadium of Light
A controversial penalty secured a point for Luton Town at the Stadium of Light

Dylan McGeouch knew his side were exposed and so he made a tactical foul, walking away to await the inevitable yellow card.

For some reason, it never came.

A controversial penalty secured a point for Luton Town at the Stadium of Light

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It was the latest, but not the last, bizarre decision on an afternoon where a genuinely enthralling League One clash ended up being overshadowed by the refereeing.

A fixation with officiating and a tendency to deflect from deficiencies by pinning defeats on bad calls is one of the worst aspects of British footballing culture, but here the topic is unavoidable.

Two red cards were rashly given, as well as the softest penalty you will see all season.

When both managers and both sets of fans are left infuriated, you know something has gone wrong.

The last 20 minutes in particular were a disappointing spectacle, the energy and verve of the opening half disappearing as Lee Probert struggled to let the game flow.

True, it was in Luton’s interests to slow it down after Danny Hylton saw red, but the intent with which they played to begin with evaporated in the febrile atmosphere.

Both sides will feel that with a different set of match officials, they would have gone on to win the game.

Luton looked every inch the side that have been so impressive under Nathan Jones this season, drawing a string of excellent saves from Jon McLaughlin.

Even with ten, they forced the Scot into action.

Sunderland, though, were always a threat and the penalty award was harsh on a defence that has had some criticism in recent weeks but battled impressively against a powerful side.

In both teams there was a quality and threat that showed they have every chance of pushing for automatic promotion.

Sunderland’s last two games, 1-1 draws against Charlton and now Luton, have underlined just how tight the battle for promotion is.

There is very little between the top seven, both aesthetically and in terms of points on the board.

On Saturday, Charlton, Barnsley and Peterborough all took advantage to turn up the pressure on the top three.

Jack Ross remains upbeat.

“I know that when I talk about a point gained, a point towards the total, people can believe that’s deflecting from not winning a game,” he said.

“We’re in a good position.

“Not a brilliant position, but a good one.

“We still have a game in hand on the top two teams and if we win that, we’re in a really good position.

“The top seven teams in this league are good sides.

“We saw it with Charlton and we saw it with Luton.

“We’re a good side, a good League One side.

“It would be easy to be enveloped by the expectations here so it’s my job to ensure the players keep seeing the positive side, but also get better.”

Sunderland are far from the finished article but their squad was stretched on Saturday.

George Honeyman is a big miss and Charlie Wyke looked tired in the closing stages.

The Black Cats look like they could benefit from an injection of fresh legs in the final third this month and Ross says his recruitment team are working hard to deliver exactly that.

It is to their credit than on a challenging afternoon they again showed they are a team not easily beaten.

That will serve them well in this tough fight for promotion.

They are still on track for that priceless two-points-per-game total but a greater ruthlessness is undoubtedly required.

After four consecutive draws of their own, Luton might well say the same.

The frustration for both sides is that they neither could reach their potential at the Stadium of Light, and the man in the middle was arguably the main reason why.