Norwich City must not dwell on that sense of injustice
It has not taken long for Norwich City and their supporters to become reacquainted with one of the facts of life in English football’s top flight. Yes, the big clubs usually get the big decisions when they play the provincial – and I’m careful not to say “smaller” – clubs.
Twas ever thus. When first division football came to Carrow Road for the first time, almost four decades ago, it was noticeable even to an 11-year-old how often players from the most powerful teams of the day, in this case Leeds, Arsenal or Liverpool, would put an arm on the referee’s shoulder, surround the official at key moments or run alongside him for 30 or 40 yards and indulge in a little more conversation than was really necessary.
It would not be fair to name names since some of the biggest culprits, also some of the star names of the day, are sadly no longer with us.
I can remember one former City defender commenting on the fact that during the League Cup semi-final marathon of 1972, the match officials were on first name terms with the Chelsea players, but the Canaries were relative unknowns to the men in black.
It had no bearing on the result as Ron Saunders’ team advanced to Wembley, but there were times in those early days among the elite when the cushions were raining down on the pitch out of the old Main Stand and the cynics appeared to have a point when they argued bitterly that City were playing against 12 men.
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City’s last dabble with Premiership life, in 2004-05, brought a couple of blatant examples, both in televised games at Carrow Road, of the big sides getting rather more than the benefit of the doubt.
The first was early in the season when Arsenal’s Lauren brought down Darren Huckerby in full flight, with the Gunners leading only 1-0, but was shown only a yellow card. The second came when Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher committed a blatant handball in the penalty area that was spotted by just about every fan and every camera in the stadium, but somehow escaped the attention of the referee and his assistant.
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Fast forward to 2011 and there is no doubt Paul Lambert’s team have had the rough edge of the key decisions in the first three Premier League games of the season.
Wigan and Stoke, who one might describe as established in the top division rather than big clubs, were each awarded questionable penalties in their respective 1-1 draws with the newly-promoted Canaries, but it was at Chelsea last Saturday that the manager’s hackles were raised by another penalty and red card controversy.
The decision to award a spot-kick for John Ruddy’s challenge on Ramires and then dismiss the goalkeeper, with the game delicately poised at 1-1, prompted not only some angry exchanges in the technical area, but some lively post-match debate.
“You aren’t going to get those decisions when there’s a big crowd for the home team,” said Lambert. “You’re coming to a ground where the crowd are right on Chelsea’s tail and more often than not the referees will go with the home side.”
Most observers, unlike the City boss, appeared to agree with the penalty decision, but it was hard to find too much support for the red card, given that the goalkeeper was not the last man and it could be argued that Ramires was unlikely to have scored as he had taken the ball too far.
It was all the more galling given that Fernando Torres had escaped a second yellow card for a blatant trip on Bradley Johnson.
And it was a bitter pill to swallow for the management, the players and 3,000 travelling supporters when the Canaries had performed so well, especially in the light of the key decisions that went against them in the previous two matches.
It is important, though, that City do not dwell on that sense of injustice when their fixture schedule resumes after the international break.
They have made a promising start to life in the top flight, in terms of competing much better with established Premier League clubs and, in one case, Champions League contenders, than might have been expected.
Once they had shaken off the shock of the first 10 minutes at Stamford Bridge, City were every bit as good as Chelsea until the moment they went down to 10 men, and at one stage looked more likely winners. They appeared to believe it and that, perhaps, was partly their downfall.
As such, two points out of a possible nine is poor reward for their efforts, but that is the reality.
The manager and numerous players made the point in pre-season interviews that a team is punished for its mistakes much more ruthlessly in the Premier League and there has been plenty of evidence of that in the opening three games.
Yet we can be optimistic. While the immediate away programme has a daunting look about it, City’s next four home games, on the basis of the performance against Stoke, are the kind of matches they are capable of winning – and they will need to win some of them to establish some of kind of foothold in the division.
They will, however, need to eliminate the kind of unforced errors that handed goals to Wigan and Chelsea.