The silver lining of going ‘soft’ for Norwich City – and others
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It is a convoluted process that relies on luck – and given what Newcastle United’s season had been like before their January signings, there’s a debate to be had over whether it’s lucky to get it or avoid it at all.
That’s right, there is a chance European football could be heading to Carrow Road next season. Just imagine, all those Europa League matches…
Up until last Wednesday’s home visit from Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City had the fewest disciplinary points in the Football Association’s fair play table.
Only four teams in 2012-13 are yet to have a player sent off: Norwich, the newly promoted duo of Southampton and Reading, plus the current runaway leaders Manchester United.
And while nine bookings across their last two games with Spurs and Queens Park Rangers means the Saints are now out on their own at the top of that particular chart, City’s impressive record has certainly helped this season in avoiding bans and team disruption.
Now, the Premier League’s fair play table – the one that can lead to European football – is a more complex affair, taking into account the way players and fans conduct themselves during games, as well as how they interact with their opponents and officials.
There are even points available based on the positivity of the team on the pitch – which may interest Norwich fans. Currently only five teams have a worse score: QPR, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Stoke and – by far the lowest – Sunderland.
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In the current top-flight fair play league Norwich sit eighth, but the seven sides above them include Arsenal (top), Liverpool (4th), Tottenham (5th), Manchester United (6th) and Chelsea (7th) – all who have a chance of qualifying for European football without the need of a fair play door.
So you could argue Norwich, Fulham (2nd) and Southampton (3rd) are battling it out for a stab at the Europa League come the summer. But that depends on one other thing – how English football conducts itself.
Only three spaces are up for grabs across Europe, meaning the countries who perform fairest in Uefa club and national competitions – like the Champions and Europa leagues, as well as England games – will get the berths, which are then decided by the domestic fair play leagues.
However, this season English football isn’t as far out of contention as you may think. Uefa’s interim Respect Fair Play rankings taken on December 31 hand England fourth behind the Scandinavian trio of Finland, Sweden and leaders Norway.
What may be more of an issue – for Norwich especially – is that their recent flurry of bookings has coincided with a return to good form and good performances.
Grant Holt admitted as much after their Rangers draw on Saturday – City need to compete physically to be at their best.
“You’re never sent out with that, but we know we were maybe being a little bit soft,” he said.
“We talked about doing things right. If it’s there to be won you go to win it and it just so happens we’re getting an influx of cards at the minute – but if we keep getting bookings and we keep getting points, it doesn’t matter.”
And for now, that definitely remains the right focus for City.