For Walsall – and, unbelievably, some City fans – to criticise Paul Lambert for the postponement of the game at the Banks’ Stadium was just plain wrong.
Here is the timeline.
On Christmas Eve, Bristol Rovers called off their Boxing Day fixture with Walsall, saying: “The pitch is frozen and it is unlikely to be better in 48 hours, so we do not want Walsall supporters to make a wasted journey.”
That is the professional, considerate way to behave – although Walsall have hardly any travelling fans and the 90-mile jaunt down the M5 is not particularly taxing.
On Sunday 27 December, Radio WM, the Midlands commercial station, said the Walsall-Norwich game could be in doubt. The station quoted club sources as saying that if there was another, heavy overnight frost, there would be a problem.
On the day of the game, groundstaff reported to the stadium at 8am and found the pitch frozen.
The Football League’s recommended (but not mandatory) procedure is to arrange an early pitch inspection. If the match ref has travelled to the area the night before and is in a local hotel, the home club should ask him to get to the ground ASAP. If the match ref is not available, the club should contact a locally-based referee.
But Walsall did not did not arrange an inspection. Nor did they call Norwich and say: “Tell the coaches not to leave yet…”
Instead, the groundsmen started carting metal braziers onto the pitch and lighting them.
No, you haven’t watched too much Doctor Who over the holiday and travelled back in time to 1955. They really did cart metal bins onto the pitch, fill them with slow-burning solid fuel and light fires.
The match referee, Mark Haywood, arrived at about 11.30, only slightly earlier than normal. Walsall chief executive Roy Whalley maintained later that Haywood was “perfectly happy” with the pitch at that stage. But Radio WM broadcast that the ref “looked deeply concerned” about the surface at 1pm.
The Norwich party arrived at about 1.15. Lambert immediately said the pitch was not safe. Now, it is possible that he had ulterior motives; Darel Russell, Stephen Hughes and Korey Smith were all nursing injuries and Jens Berthel Askou and Owain Tudur Jones were definitely out.
But, if we want Norwich to get out of League One, then Lambert has to play every card available to him.
And it is also probable that Lambert worked out that the best a brazier can achieve is to thaw the ground immediately beneath it. You get soft circles surrounded by ground that is still frozen.
A Hoolahan might be able to keep his feet, but it would be treacherous for someone bulkier and less fleet-footed (sorry, Holty, but I am thinking of you).
And Walsall definitely had their own agenda.
They had not played on Boxing Day, but knew Norwich had. So they had been insisting to referee Haywood that everything was hunky dory.
Walsall player Darren Byfield said on Twitter that they were told to get into their kits before Norwich arrived. That can only have been to pressurise the ref.
Yet Haywood concluded, just after 2pm, that the pitch was not safe. The PGMOL, the body which employs Premier League refs and supervises National List officials like Haywood, instructs them not to permit games to be played on pitches that have frozen patches.
The late call-off was utterly galling for fans who had trekked across the country from Norfolk.
It was less maddening for me, admittedly, because I live in Hertfordshire. But I’d organised my entire working week so as to be able to go to Walsall as a fan with my wife.
We’d spent an hour in a jam on the M1 and so had been driving for three hours. We were about six miles from the ground when we heard about the postponement. I said a rude word. My wife said a slightly less rude one.
Still, it might have prevented us from being arrested or at least ejected from the stadium. We didn’t have away end tickets and had planned to sneak in with home fans and try to keep quiet. That was always a risky scheme.
Those who went to the Midlands under our own steam get no recompense for the petrol or for the hideous Service Station grub we scoffed on the way back. But those who went on official Norwich coaches will get a full refund.
And we all get the chance to see Norwich give the Saddlers the stuffing they deserve next month.
Whalley the wally wanted his team to face a tired Norwich side on a dodgy pitch than later in the season.
Well, tough. You’ll get what’s coming to you on January 12th.
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