Ref's night of Merseyside madness
David Cuffley Tranmere Rovers 3, Norwich City 1: The absurdity of having to trek to Tranmere for an evening kick-off on Good Friday was matched by the often farcical nature of the contest as Norwich City suffered only their seventh League One defeat of the season.
Tranmere Rovers 3, Norwich City 1
The absurdity of having to trek to Tranmere for an evening kick-off on Good Friday was matched by the often farcical nature of the contest as Norwich City suffered only their seventh League One defeat of the season.
The curse of the Sky TV cameras returned to haunt the table-topping Canaries as they were knocked out of their stride in an extraordinary start to last night's match at Prenton Park.
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Paul Lambert's men were left with a mountain to climb when they conceded two penalties in the first 12 minutes and were reduced to 10 men by the sending-off of goalkeeper Fraser Forster.
Veteran striker Ian Thomas-Moore scored both spot-kicks and when Craig Curran made it 3-0 on the half-hour with a disputed goal - appearing to use his arm before shooting home - it was hard to see City staging another of their second-half comebacks.
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Top scorer Grant Holt's 29th goal of the season reduced the arrears in a hectic second period, but for once the inspirational skipper and his team-mates were unable to grasp that lifeline.
It was City's fourth defeat in four matches on the satellite channel this season, and though manager Lambert insisted before the game that live coverage had no impact on his players, supporters may be inclined to groan next time their team is chosen for a live TV appearance.
Instead, Lambert was more concerned by the performance of Tyne & Wear referee Eddie Ilderton, which was eccentric, to say the least. He sent Lambert from the touchline in the second half when the manager ran on to the field to kick the ball back to keep the game moving, just one of a number of controversial decisions from the ringmaster for this Easter circus.
In fairness, relegation-threatened Tranmere produced a performance that belied their lowly position, but given a two-goal lead and a one-man advantage in the first 12 minutes, it was hardly surprising their tails were up.
City were soon under pressure and the first drama came in the fourth minute when Terry Gornell's shot struck Darel Russell on the arm in the six-yard box. After allowing play to continue for a few seconds, referee Ilderton saw his assistant flagging and pointed to the spot.
A bewildered Russell Martin was booked in what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity and Tranmere skipper Thomas-Moore tucked home the penalty to Forster's left for his 11th goal of the season and the 100th league goal of his career.
Things went from bad to worse in the 10th minute as City conceded another penalty and were reduced to 10 men.
A poor backpass by Gary Doherty was latched on to by Thomas-Moore and when he tried to go round Forster, the Tranmere man went tumbling, the referee awarded another spot-kick and he showed a straight red card to the 'keeper, his second dismissal of the season.
City boss Lambert sacrificed midfielder Simon Lappin to bring on substitute goalkeeper Declan Rudd, whose first duty was to pick the ball out of the net as Thomas-Moore struck the spot-kick to his right.
City gradually got to grips with the game and Wes Hoolahan set up Stephen Elliott - again preferred to Chris Martin - for a low shot that swerved wide.
Midway through the half, the visitors looked certain to get a goal back when Hoolahan's pass put Holt clear and he went round 'keeper Luke Daniels, but defender Ian Goodison got back brilliantly to clear Holt's shot off the line.
Curran was next to weave through for Tranmere and Rudd made an excellent save low to his left, but the resulting corner led to goal number three on the half-hour.
There were appeals for handball again when Gornell's shot struck Nelson, but instead Curran hooked the loose ball past Rudd, though the defence froze for a moment in the belief he had controlled the ball with his arm.
Russell, Hoolahan and Michael Nelson all went close for City before the interval and, after the break, substitute Chris Martin's free-kick was deflected wide off John Welsh, before Martin created room for a low drive that Daniels held at the second attempt.
But in the 58th minute, City finally threw themselves a lifeline when Chris Martin did well to keep the ball in from Doherty's long ball forward and crossed for Holt, who showed good control before firing home - though Daniels was booked for protesting that the ball had gone out before Martin crossed.
Tranmere had chances to extend their lead and Rudd saved superbly from Gornell to deny them a fourth goal, before Ash Taylor twice came close to making it 4-1.
First he headed wide - but needed attention for a blow to the shoulder - then his shot beat Rudd but struck a team-mate a couple of yards out.
Hoolahan missed a good chance to reduce the arrears further in the 82nd minute when substitute Anthony McNamee's cross was knocked down into his path but he fired across the face of the goal.
Tranmere finished with a flourish, however, and the final word very nearly went to Thomas-Moore, who twice came close to completing his hat-trick.
He hit the post with a fine effort, struck with the outside of his right foot, with seven minutes left, and was denied by a splendid diving save by Rudd in stoppage time, rounding off an excellent night's work for the young 'keeper.