OPINION: Accrington Stanley 2 Fleetwood Town 1
When Darren Handley allowed a studs-up challenge on Fleetwood Town’s Wes Burns to go unpunished he allowed a cauldron to boil over.
Joey Barton is a born winner not known for being gracious in defeat, but I have never agreed with his post-match sentiments more strongly than at Accrington on Tuesday.
Referee Darren Handley made bad decision after bad decision in an EFL Trophy game that should not be so hotly or fiercely contested.
Barton called Lamine Kaba Sherif’s challenge on Burns “shocking” and could not hide his dismay at a refereeing display that put players at risk.
Burns was felled in the 16th minute in full view of the referee. Barton claimed the fourth official told him it was a straight red but Handley opted not even to caution the Stanley man.
Burns was grounded for four minutes, his leg clearly opened up by the flying studs, leaving a gash the length of his calf.
The only saving grace was that Burns’ leg appeared not to be broken, though he left the ground on crutches.
After letting that go, Handley lost control. Minutes later Kaba Sherif went over the ball and sent Kyle Dempsey flying.This time the referee reached for a yellow but could easily have shown a red.
As the tackles flew in and ill feeling spread like wildfire, Sean McConville stormed down the left and Harrison Biggins went to ground to make a challenge. He may have got some of the ball but he also cut down McConville.
The flustered Handley, used to officiating in League Two this season, pulled out a yellow, then reached for a red and sent Biggins off.
The tackles did not stop from either side but Stanley boss John Coleman did bring Kaba Sherif off.
The official was ill prepared for the bad blood that would escalate following his failure to deal with a bad challenge.
That bad blood carried over from last season, when Jason Holt was stretchered off and Barton was critical of Accrington’s pitch.
Barton spoke last month about having a beer with Coleman in Turkey this summer but any mellowing in the relationship between the clubs would not last.
In Town’s 2-0 Highbury win over Stanley 10 days before this Trophy clash, the visitors were unhappy at a penalty award and McConville was sent off for raising a hand to Ched Evans.
Coleman brought a photograph to his press conference after the match showing Evans doing the same to McConville, who is still serving his three-match ban but could play under EFL Trophy rules.
Barton is known for a post-match rant but on Tuesday he was right. The referee put players in danger and it was uncomfortable to watch at times. Football is the 12th-biggest industry in England, yet there are very few professional referees.
If the fourth official saw the severity of the Burns incident why did he not flag it up? They have earpieces for a reason. We don’t need VAR in the lower leagues – we need communication.
Barton wanted to go strong in this competition but need he have gone so strong? Six of those who started at Lincoln on Saturday did so again.
Alex Cairns, Dempsey, Ash Eastham, Evans and Ash Hunter all came in and gained vital minutes, though this was a chance to blood more youngsters, such as Harvey Saunders, who made a late cameo.
Ten-man Town faced an uphill battle and luck really was not with them as Wilson Carvalho’s 53rd-minute strike sailed past Cairns off the toe of Jordan Rossiter.
Stanley keeper Toby Savin impressed as he thwarted Evans time and time again.
At 1-0 Town looked the side more likely to score next despite being a man down, though again they conceded down their right wing as Lewie Coyle was outpaced by McConville, who curled the ball past Cairns – a sweet moment for a scorer who has apologised for his actions in the league game.
Paddy Madden stepped up with a penalty late on, after Ross Sykes had handled in the box.
And Town nearly grabbed a draw when Cairns steamed up into the Stanley box for a last-minute corner and caused confusion, though Danny Andrew fired over.
When these sides meet again in League One on Good Friday a strong and competent ref will be needed as the bad blood is unlikely to have cooled.