Referee Darren Sheldrake was drenched in controversy as the Clarets slipped to their first defeat of the campaign against Brighton at the AMEX Stadium.
The man in the middle upset the local contingent when failing to give Tom Heaton his marching orders in the first half after appearing to upend Will Buckley who raced through on goal. The keeper escaped with a booking as Sheldrake adjudged the winger to have been moving away from goal.
And in the second half the travelling Clarets support were left in sheer bewilderment when the match official presented Heaton with a second yellow - and consequently a red card - for handling the ball twice in the area on the hour mark.
Prior to those moments of madness, however, Sean Dyche’s side had already gifted the Seagulls the lead. David Jones’s pass back to defender Kevin Long lacked conviction but the Irishman dallied and paid the price when Leonardo Ulloa shrugged him off the ball before squaring the ball to Andrew Crofts who confidently fired beneath Heaton in the 28th minute.
The breakthrough proved a huge sucker-punch to the visitors who had been competitive in an evenly contested Championship fixture. Oscar Garcia has formulated a well-drilled and productive unit in Falmer, balancing composure and organisation with the tika-taka that he’d promised to bring with him from Barcelona’s Nou Camp to the South Coast.
Albion’s prolific Argentinian marksman, signed from Almeria, made early in-roads and should’ve done better when freed by the impressive Rohan Ince - after Kieran Trippier had conceded possession - but he dragged an effort wide of the far post.
The Clarets responded, targeting the right hand side as Trippier and Keith Treacy - in for the injured Ross Wallace - found ample space. The full-back rolled a pass to Dean Marney who in turn looked for Ings at the near post but Tomasz Kuszczak wasn’t troubled by the striker’s tame touch.
The away side were free-flowing at times, exploiting gaps with intricate passages, and as the space opened up ahead for Treacy he threaded a pass to Scott Arfield who could’ve broken the deadlock on his full debut, but the former Terrier’s strike trickled beyond the far post via a deflection.
But before the opener the home side fired a couple of warning signals. Once Sheldrake wrongly awarded a free-kick after Trippier had over-powered Buckley, the resulting set-piece from David Lopez found Crofts lurking on the edge of the six-yard box but he headed over the bar.
Then, moments later, as Albion continued to press, Ulloa drilled a ferocious low effort across Heaton that flashed past the upright as the ball fell kindly from Inigo Calderon’s drive in to the area.
The AMEX is certainly an atmospheric stadium, one of the finer new builds in the country, and the vociferous crowd upped the volume further as Crofts netted. The Clarets weren’t under any pressure what-so-ever when Jones was in possession, but his weak pass to Long saw Ulloa pick-pocket the defender before sliding the ball across the box for Crofts to finish from close range.
After transforming the game against Yeovil Town at Turf Moor last weekend, Treacy confirmed that the ‘penny had dropped’. And he certainly tried to prove a point in Sussex, going agonisingly close to providing the equaliser when dropping a shoulder to beat Stephen Ward but there wasn’t a Claret shirt in the vicinity to apply the vital touch from the winger’s fizzing centre.
At the other end, Buckley fired wide of the near post when forced off-balance by Long from Kemy Agustien’s delightful pass and then came the first instalment of a couple of contentious talking points.
Long was again at the centre of the incident when his woeful header left Heaton exposed and as Buckley raced on to the loose ball the Clarets stopper appeared to catch the winger, sending him sprawling to the floor. But with the crowd expecting red, they appeared appalled to only watch a yellow produced from Sheldrake’s pocket. On second viewing, in my opinion, Buckley had committed to the dive before Heaton had even committed to the challenge.
While the raging hub of fans continued to boil over with discontent, the Clarets looked to take advantage and Marney should have done better when placing an effort in to the arms of Kuszczak when teed up by Ings inside the penalty area. That brought an action-packed first half to a close.
Immediately after the break the away side had a superb opportunity to level proceedings when Ings was bundled over right on the edge of the box. However, Jones was wasteful when the midfielder attempted the sublime but was left looking ridiculous when volleying comfortably over the top as Trippier flicked the ball in to his path.
Ings was in the thick of the action again when lifting a spectacular pass over the head of Ward and in to the path of Treacy who cut back on to his left foot but curled an effort wide of the angle.
The Clarets were bright, fighting to retain their unbeaten start to the season, but those hopes were obliterated by an inexplicably astonishing decision by protagonist Sheldrake. As the hour approached, Heaton fumbled the ball inside the box, challenged for it with Ulloa, before recovering to claim possession. The match official blew his whistle, raced over to the keeper and consequently gave him his marching orders before awarding an in-direct free-kick inside the area. The decision was baffling and led to assistant boss Ian Woan’s dismissal from the dug-out as well while also paving the way for goalkeeper Alex Cisak to make his league bow.
The 24-year-old’s first action was to watch Lopez’s resulting free-kick to fly wide of the angle. But the Polish stopper would soon be pulling the ball from the back of his net. After Jones tested Kuszczak with a stinging left-footed drive from distance, Buckley traded passes with Crofts down the right and crossed for Ulloa who cranked his neck muscles to guide the ball in to the corner when under minimal pressure.
Sam Vokes went close for the Clarets with a header late on, but overall it was an afternoon to forget.
Dyche’s men now entertain rivals Preston North End in the second round of the Capital One Cup at Turf Moor on Tuesday, kick-off at 7-45 p.m.