Reffing hell for Norwich City – but they must tighten up, too

Four matches, five controversial decisions, four of them against Norwich City – and at least three referees who will not be receiving Christmas cards from Carrow Road.

Those figures tell only the bare outline of a fairly fraught fortnight which, despite delivering some impressive football from the Canaries, has brought them just three points out of a possible 12 and a net loss of four places in the Championship table.

It is often said that bad decisions even themselves out over the course of the campaign, but I’ve never believed that theory – City were on the wrong end of some complete howlers en route to relegation two seasons ago with little going their way – and it’s an argument that is likely to find little favour with City boss Paul Lambert after events in the games against Cardiff City, Burnley, Millwall and Reading.

In the space of 15 days, Lambert has been moved to compare two match officials to Paul Daniels – for their dexterity with the cards, one assumes, rather than a tendency to be smug and irritating – and to suggest that a third would be returning to his kindergarten on Monday.

Harsh words indeed.

The penalty awarded by referee Graham Scott for handball against defender Elliott Ward at Cardiff kicked off Lambert’s two weeks of anger and frustration, and though it is impossible to say whether the Canaries would have completed their comeback after going 2-0 down inside 12 minutes, the Bluebirds’ third goal, from the spot, did enough to take the wind out of their sails and condemn them to their second away defeat of the season.

Fast forward a week and it was Berkshire official Trevor Kettle who had too much whistle for one manager and not enough for the other as City drew 2-2 at home to Burnley.

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Clarets boss Brian Laws almost had steam coming out of his ears as he protested about midfielder Andrew Crofts’ apparent handball in scoring a stoppage-time equaliser, while Lambert bemoaned the two yellow cards shown to Crofts that resulted in his dismissal moments after scoring that precious goal – and forced him to miss the trip to Millwall three days later.

City may have got slightly the better of the refereeing blunders that day, since Crofts’ second booking for a foul on Tyrone Mears was, it appeared, an obvious yellow and one caution would have been enough to suspend him for the trip to The Den. He must, however, live with the risk of another swift ban with four “unspent” yellow cards still hanging over his head before crunch games against Leeds and Ipswich, not traditionally played in the most chivalrous spirit.

The Canaries coped very well at Millwall without Crofts and looked set for another three points when his midfield replacement, David Fox, scored a splendid first goal for the club, but there was further annoyance with the officials when Lambert complained that the injury-time equaliser from 18-year-old debutant John Marquis should have been disallowed by referee Mark Haywood for offside.

His mood that night was positively upbeat, however, compared to the indignation that followed skipper Grant Holt’s ridiculous sending-off at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday.

As an FA hearing sensibly concluded, 25-year-old referee Michael Oliver made a clear mistake in dismissing Holt for his collision with Ian Harte, the second red card issued by Mr Oliver to be rescinded in quick succession, though it could be said in the official’s defence that Harte’s reaction created the impression that more damage had been inflicted than was actually the case.

The Canaries’ biggest punishment, however, was the loss of the two additional points they looked well placed to collect after probably their best 45 minutes of football since the trip to Bristol City at the start of October.

But while City have been more sinned against than sinners in this sequence of matches, it is important that they do not go into games believing referees have it in for them – and bad decisions should not be allowed to disguise areas of their own game where they need to tighten up.

The sense of injustice and anger over refereeing decisions makes it easy to overlook any shortcomings, but not all the points that have slipped away have been the responsibility of the men in black, blue or salmon pink.

Most worryingly, City’s vulnerability from set-pieces remains. Harte’s first-half goal for Reading was the fifth they had conceded from a corner in the space of six matches, and the second from a corner in successive away games to cost them dearly. Referees cannot be held to account for poor marking in the penalty area.

City have also conceded four penalties, three of them scored, not on a par with seven conceded at the same stage in their last Championship campaign, but another slight concern.

And while acknowledging the eccentricities of certain officials, City need to be careful on the disciplinary front. Ward and Crofts have already served bans, Crofts is one booking away from a second suspension, while the reprieved Holt, Leon Barnett and Simon Lappin have three yellows each.

With the games against Leeds and Ipswich bringing Carrow Road’s biggest crowds for more than two decades, a pressure-cooker atmosphere is guaranteed, even more so than usual given there is little to choose between the three sides in the current league table and much is at stake even this early in the season.

The tackles will be flying in and it will be a time for steady nerves and cool heads and, one hopes, better referees.