Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Sending off at Stoke could have a massive effect on Sunderland’s season

Sunderland players clash with referee Kevin Friend after he showed a red card to Wes Brown.
Sunderland players clash with referee Kevin Friend after he showed a red card to Wes Brown.
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EVEN the most silver-tongued words of commiseration from Mike Riley will come as no compensation to Gus Poyet.

If the referees’ chief takes up the challenge of the Sunderland boss and dares to ring Poyet today, the damage has already been done.

Maybe Sunderland would still have succumbed to defeat at the Britannia Stadium with a full quota of players on the pitch.

But maybe not.

And in a game with such huge ramifications for two teams lingering in the bottom four at the start of play, Kevin Friend’s abysmal decision could ultimately be season-changing for the Black Cats.

By checking Sunderland’s momentum, that one moment of refereeing lunacy could send Poyet’s side spiralling towards the abyss once more. It was that significant.

It was an episode of indefensible incompetence.

Yes, referees have a tough job, everyone makes mistakes and they don’t have access to a television replay... blah, blah, blah.

But Friend’s decision to dismiss Wes Brown brought into question his whole competency to officiate in the top flight.

There was no mitigation. He was 10 yards away, with a clear view of what was a textbook example of how to produce a firm, but fair, slide tackle.

Peter Crouch, a yard away, didn’t complain. The linesman didn’t raise his flag. The home fans in the Britannia Stadium barely raised a murmur.

Friend is well-paid to do his job; it’s not charity work. Yet on a day when Everton’s Kevin Mirallas only received a yellow card for leaving a studs tattoo on Luis Suarez’s thigh, the Leicestershire official saw fit to issue arguably the most ludicrous red of the season.

Does anyone actually know what constitutes a sending off these days?

Every referee seems to have a different idea. A chest level high boot from Asmir Begovic didn’t even constitute a foul, according to Friend.

Of course, there was no public explanation from Friend afterwards. The mute button cannot be touched when it comes to the man in the middle ever having to defend themselves.

Mark Hughes oddly leapt to his defence with ill-judged comments decrying Brown’s challenge as reckless and incoherent with the non-contact netball rules of modern football. But he was a lone voice.

Friend will probably be back officiating next weekend, when Brown will surely be on show too, presuming the FA succumb to the giant weight of public condemnation and rescind the sending-off.

But even if Brown does feature at Aston Villa, the damage has already been done.

From being on Stoke’s coat-tails, Sunderland now find themselves six points adrift of the Potters again; still facing that uphill task to record the nine or 10 wins needed for safety.

Far more crucial than any empty words of apology for Poyet, will be ensuring Sunderland’s players remain upbeat after a fifth successive away defeat and not allowing Friend’s bungling to de-rail their progress.

What Sunderland demonstrated prior to Brown’s sending-off was that Poyet’s philosophy can be taken on tour.

Sunderland have been perilously brittle away from home this season, but this did not follow that pattern, even though Charlie Adam gave the Potters the advantage with a well-worked opener when Poyet’s side still had 11 men on the field.

That goal was against the run of play of a surprisingly entertaining encounter, with Stoke genuinely looking to get the ball down, rather than resorting to the prehistoric tactics of Tony Pulis.

Sunderland had dominated the opening half hour and there was no hint of Poyet’s side looking to keep it tight on the road and nicking a win.

They’d gone to the Britannia to impose themselves and demonstrate the ambition to win the game.

Both full-backs operated as supplementary wingers, albeit Ondrej Celustka was let down by his haphazard distribution.

It allowed Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson the chance to step infield five yards and operate as auxiliary frontmen to Steven Fletcher.

As Sunderland kept possession for lengthy periods in the Stoke half, John O’Shea and Wes Brown were the only Black Cats players in their own territory. Neither of them were afraid to wander over halfway either.

Even when Sunderland were put under pressure – usually by the forays forward and dangerous delivery of Stoke right-back Geoff Cameron – they had the composure needed to play the ball out from the back.

That principally stemmed from the ice cool Ki Sung-Yeung, who must surely keep his place at Aston Villa ahead of the returning Lee Cattermole. The South Korean has become Sunderland’s pivotal figure.

Had Fletcher converted a glorious ball over the top from Johnson, it would have been fitting reward for Sunderland’s positive start.

Sunderland’s adventure was punished when Steven Nzonzi got in behind the retreating Black Cats defence and picked out Adam with a perfectly weighted pull-back, yet you still sensed that there were more goals in a finely-poised encounter.

Brown’s dismissal changed everything.

While Sunderland showed plenty of heart and determination to get bodies forward after the break, the numerical disadvantage was telling and left the visitors vulnerable at the other end - Nzonzi eventually taking advantage of the gaps to end the encounter with 10 minutes to go.

That prompted a wave of relief around the Britannia Stadium after a three-month wait for a Premier League victory.

Those in the Potteries knew the importance of the encounter.

So did Sunderland’s players and staff, hence the furious reaction from Poyet when Friend reached for his back pocket.

But what they can’t do is let one bungling referee let a month of progress go to waste.