Norwich City were robbed by the referee
For 92 minutes it all seemed to be going to plan with a fifth successive home Premier League win – forgetting, obviously, the small matter of the six seasons in the middle of this run – on the cards, not to mention a third successive clean sheet into the bargain.
But then it seemed as if the price to pay for all those late goals from the last couple of seasons finally caught up with us.
I’ve no complaints with the fact that Stoke scored – if you let the opposition string together four or five balls and then give the likes of Kenwyne Jones an inch of space inside the area it’s going to happen.
But the points weren’t lost then, but rather the moment when the game ceased to be 11 against 11.
At full strength we would have gone on to win, no question. But being a man down and having to make a sacrifice upfield to bring on another defender completely destroyed the dynamics of the afternoon and Stoke were also reborn.
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From then on it was a damage limitation exercise – albeit a much more successful one than Ipswich’s in the second half at Peterborough.
It was a shocking decision to give Leon Barnett a red card – worse than anything we saw from Eddie Ilderton during his shambolic display at Tranmere a couple of seasons ago – but welcome to the Premier League, the competition in which falling over can win you the chance of an undeserved goal or, at the very least, a free-kick inside your own area and the chance to buy a bit of relief in stoppage time. Just ask Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
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When you consider the millions of pounds on offer and at stake in Premier League games –- because I don’t recall the likes of Singha Beer or www.tanzania.go.tv taking out perimeter advertising two years ago when we were facing Wycombe Wanderers – it’s little short of fraudulent that outcomes are decided as a result of human error.
How was it that an incident that was little more than a 50-50 should end with us being potentially punished twice with both the loss of a man and our lead?
That we were able to hang on for even a point after a joke of a decision like that is cause for much celebration. On the evidence of the first hour we will stay up.
This time last year John Ruddy’s late penalty save against Swansea proved to be the difference between us gaining automatic promotion and having to take part in the play-offs.
Yesterday’s effort should prove to be no less important. Had Stoke equalised at that point we might have struggled to have got anything out of the game and now be consumed by self-doubt.
Instead, the fact is that we have now played two sides against whom we have not looked out of place. The only thing that has perhaps let us down has been a lack of Premier League nous. The sort of streetwise qualities that Stoke have on the back of finishing 12th, 11th and 13th in the past three seasons.
That will come. After all, two games in and we’re already seeing a few differences between this top-flight campaign and our last stab at the big time seven years ago.
Paul Lambert is willing to make as many changes as it takes to outfox the opposition and is plainly going to use every bit of his squad.
So neither Wes Hoolahan nor Russell Martin started yesterday – can you imagine a time in recent Canaries history when the last goalscorer or an ever-present from the previous season would be sacrificed because of the particular demands of some very physical opposition?
It would have been useful to have had Steve Morison’s battling qualities against Stoke, but, no matter, every one else was still able to get stuck in.
With Anthony Pilkington and Elliott Bennett starting we were able to play with much more width than at Wigan. But it wasn’t just them, this was an outstanding performance by everyone in a City shirt.
Carry on this steady progress and even further jaw-droppingly inept penalty calls will be unable to prevent next month’s games against West Brom, Bolton and Sunderland from being very interesting.
• EVERYTHING ABOUT THE OCCASION WAS PREMIER LEAGUE
If it’s a Sunday lunchtime kick-off and the game’s not on television – well, not in this country, anyway – then it must be Ipswich, right?
Granted the visitors did have a player who had once taken the Portman Road shilling, but such was the way things went that the real villain was a man in black rather than one formerly in blue.
Before yesterday I did wonder whether the atmosphere would suffer as a result of the early start, but not a bit of it.
Maybe it was because the magic words ‘Premier’ and ‘League’ were attached to the occasion, but there was a real buzz about the place.
Take away Ipswich fixtures and promotion-clinching or celebrating games and you probably have to go right back to our closing games in the Premier League in April and May 2005 for that level of fervent atmosphere.
And if we see as much effort, determination and commitment as we did yesterday that will not let up for the foreseeable future.
• TWO GAMES IN THREE DAYS NOW A RARITY
The fact that we are playing MK Dons tomorrow suggests City will put out a very different team from the one which played Stoke – and quite right too.
It’ll be interesting to see what Paul Lambert does in the middle of defence, but I would expect to see quite a large part of yesterday’s bench start, including Declan Rudd.
It’d be nice to have a cup run, but this season is all about the Premier League. Everything else is a distraction, which is why I suspect that we’re playing this tie tomorrow rather than on Wednesday.
For me, this match is all about having an eye on formations for the West Brom game next month rather than ensuring a place in the last 32 of the Carling Cup.
Let’s face it, the days of two games in three days are on the way out – the last two Easters we haven’t played on the Saturday and as a result have been able to grind out wins on the Monday which we perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise managed.
This time around being at home to Everton on Easter Saturday and then away to Tottenham two days later is probably going to make full use of City’s squad.
When we played Ipswich on a Sunday four seasons ago in Glenn Roeder’s first game in charge we were running on empty after storming back from two goals down at half-time to draw 2-2.
But for some reason our next game, at home to Watford, was not moved back 24 hours from the following Tuesday and we were well beaten 3-1.
It’s the way football’s going – in the early 1980s we used to play two festive games on successive days as a matter of course, but that has now gone the way of playing on a Christmas Day when it fell on a Saturday – the last time being in 1956, trivia fans.
• Doubtless there will be a few ‘Canaries’ wings clipped by Jones’-type headlines on the news stands today, but they will not be the front-runners in the race for the most annoying Fleet Street coverage of Norwich City during 2011/12.
No, that’s held, at the moment, by The Guardian’s website, with a headline for their preview of the Wigan match of: “Like Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen, the reticent Paul Lambert has galvanised an isolated coastal team.”
So, should City be unable to break their run of successive 4-0 defeats at Stamford Bridge – currently three and counting – this weekend I fully expect them to come up with “Canaries all at sea against Chelsea.”