Emerging from the stadium after the Peterborough game and hearing snippets of post-match analysis walking through the crowd, it was clear there was only one thing being discussed. While David Coote, the referee, got the game’s biggest call right when he sent off Bryan Oviedo, the game was marred by some baffling decisions from the officials.
Both managers took aim at the referee in their post-match interviews, and Tom Flanagan received a yellow card after the full-time whistle for his protests. Debates raged as to whether referees at this level simply could not cope officiating in front of crowds as big as Sunderland’s, or whether they were actively trying to prove that they could by giving decisions the other way.
In truth, Coote’s display wasn’t even the worst in League One that evening. In a video doing the rounds on social media the next day, AFC Wimbledon saw a free kick given, outside the box, for a foul that was several feet inside the box in their home defeat against Bradford. It is less likely that referees struggle when visiting the Stadium of Light, and more likely that they are just not as good as we are used to, given how far the club has fallen. We find ourselves in a league that better officials are demoted to when they make a high-profile error in a more exposed division. It is easier to fly under the radar when the extent of the televised highlights are around 45 seconds on Quest, with next to no scrutiny. Some of the officials we encounter this season may well go on to reach the peak of the game, but for now they are learning their trade, in games deemed less significant, at our expense.
Though it is far from ideal to come away from a match frustrated by the performance of a referee, as on Tuesday, it is an indicator of how far the club have progressed in the early stages of this new era. As has been the case in the last few years, referees have been under far less scrutiny during Sunderland matches, as any glaring errors have largely been overshadowed by the failings of the team. Once the inevitability of back to back relegations set in, followed by general apathy, the performance of the referees became a less pressing issue. When the team are competitive in games and the margins are tighter, as they were on Tuesday, this suddenly becomes important. Bizarrely, coming away from a game angry at a referee is, at least for Sunderland, progress, because it means we’re not angry at our own players.
This was not the only sign of change on Tuesday. It was refreshing to see a Sunderland side not crumble under the physical pressure of Peterborough when they equalised, as has happened so many times last season. The fact that we went for the win, and very nearly got it, shows how far this team has come, and can only breed confidence for the games ahead. John McLaughlin also showed his quality and was the presence we have lacked since Pickford was sold. A goalkeeper who is winning points for his team and not constantly losing us them can only breed confidence throughout a side and will be vital this campaign.
Despite these positives, in the short term there are still issues to be addressed. One win in six games is not promotion form by any stretch. Tackling this has been made harder by the absence of key players. But if the majority of criticism continues to be reserved for the officials, then the squad must be doing something right.