Nobody is laughing at ref's comic turn
Chris Lakey Norwich City 0, Southampton 2: The Red Card Comedy Club meets regularly at Carrow Road, so we can only assume referee Russell Booth was auditioning for a slot on Saturday. "What do you do when you see Darel Russell raise his right boot and accidentally catch an opponent who appears out of nowhere? You send him off anyway.
The Red Card Comedy Club meets regularly at Carrow Road, so we can only assume referee Russell Booth was auditioning for a slot on Saturday.
"What do you do when you see Darel Russell raise his right boot and accidentally catch an opponent who appears out of nowhere? You send him off anyway."
Cue mayhem, a chorus of boos and much shaking of heads as Booth's joke falls flat on its face.
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Even if Booth's timing had been better, the punchline was still rubbish. When he showed a straight red - for a challenge on Morgan Schneiderlin as the midfielder came up on Russell's blindside - City were enjoying their best spell of a match from which they deserved nothing. But it begs a question: what might have happened if Russell had stayed on?
A week earlier, at Brighton, City weren't up to much. Brighton were ahead, and deservedly so, but City fought back, got better and scored twice in the last 10 minutes to pick up a valuable three points.
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Had City's little spell just before the hour mark on Saturday continued, with 11 men, who's to say what might have happened? Instead of losing their first home league game since THAT game against Colchester on the opening day, we could be talking about a six-point lead over Leeds.
But we're talking about a defeat - and no one knows how it will affect City over the coming weeks when, don't forget, they have a three-game run that takes in Huddersfield and Swindon away and Leeds at home.
And if City fail in their appeal against Russell's red card, it means he will be out for at least three games - the FA can add another if they feel an appeal is frivolous. If they do either, then we might as well all go home.
Even if they see City's side of it, rather than Booth's unfunny side, it's a bit too late: we have a lost 30 minutes, the points have gone to Southampton and we're talking about a three-point gap to Leeds who have a game in hand, and four over Colchester, who are now looking like the most likely side to prevent a two-horse race.
It all suggests that perhaps the presence of an official with a video camera might have made a difference.
Had Booth seen a replay of the incident you feel he would have had a change of mind. But he can't. And, yes, Mr and Mrs Referee, he is only human and we all make mistakes. Except he's paid not to.
The worry for City fans is whether their team are going to suffer the sort of blip that has affected Leeds and Charlton. Leeds could be home and dry by now, but they've taken just seven points out of their last 24. Charlton have lost half of their points in eight games this year, while Colchester have won four out of their last five and taken 17 points out of a possible 27 in 2010.
Norwich? They've got 21 points from 27 - but only three from the last nine. Is it a two-game blip or is it the start of squeaky bum time?
City haven't played particularly well in the six games since winning 5-0 at Colchester, although it's hard to be too critical given that they won four of them - and in those games they were often the better side.
That wasn't the case on Saturday and Paul Lambert was quick to acknowledge that they fell short of what was required against a good side who, if they don't make the play-offs this year, look certain to be in the mix next year when they won't have the weight of a 10-point penalty hanging around their necks.
It was billed as the battle of the hot-shots, but City's front two were left out in the cold, as Lee Barnard took centre stage (when Mr Booth wasn't occupying it).
City started well, coming out of the traps quickly, but failing to find the early breakthrough. Saints were quick - quick to pass the ball, quick to shut City down - and after the early jabs, started to send in some heavy bombs to unsettle their hosts.
Jason Puncheon was a danger on the right, cutting inside on his favoured left foot, although Adam Lallana wasn't as effective as he had been in the previous contests down on the south coast.
The width Southampton employed contrasted with City's: theirs was on the bench in the shape of Anthony McNamee and you wonder if Grant Holt and Chris Martin are relishing the opportunity to get on to the end of some of his whipped-in crosses from open play.
His inclusion from the start would likely mean a change of formation as well as staffing: perhaps Paul Lambert's policy of sticking with a winning side might be tested after recent events. Perhaps there is an argument that, for every bead of sweat they have contributed to the cause, there might be some tiredness in the heads and legs of some of those who haven't had a break since Lambert took charge 29 games ago.
An over-hit free-kick here, a heavy pass there - it just didn't work for City on Saturday. And while Saints were forcing them into mistakes, they struck.
Goal one came on 33 minutes, when Rickie Lambert's long-range free-kick came down off the underside of the bar.
City players dozed, Saints players appealed for a goal - except Barnard, who guided the ball into the bottom corner with his head. Gary Doherty claimed a push on Michael Nelson - too half-heartedly to be considered seriously. Never mind - the team that has scored first in City's previous four matches had gone on to lose. The difference being, of course, that it was 11 v 11 each time.
Nelson forced Kelvin Davis into his first save at the start of the second half - although Puncheon was denied by Fraser Forster in a one-on-one as Saints broke - and the former Ipswich stopper did well to tip a deflected Korey Smith shot on to his bar soon after.
City's struggle for fluency became an uphill battle just after the hour mark when the match official started to get card happy, producing the straight red to Russell who raised his boot as he tried to guide the ball to a team-mate, only to see Schneiderlin suddenly appear and take the collateral damage.
Jon Otsemobor, producing arguably his best performance at Carrow Road, almost set up Lallana for a second when he managed to make it into nose bleed country and slipped the ball to his team-mate who skipped Michael Rose's challenge but then hit the right-hand post.
A minute later, Lallana hit the same post, and very possibly the exact same spot, with a curler from the left side of the area after the City defence had practically given over one side of their penalty area to Southampton.
City were on the rack and on 77 minutes they were sliced open. Puncheon got into the area on the right, Rose and Russell Martin couldn't stop him and he pulled the ball back for the unmarked Barnard to slide it home from 11 yards.
Chris Martin went close at the end, Holt headed one which Davis scooped up easily, but City fell short of a club record-equalling 12th consecutive home win and for only the second time in the league this season, failed to score.
The other occasion was at home to Walsall in September. The referee? Mr R Booth (Notts).