Etherington takes his chance as referee dithers

Stoke City 1 Norwich City 0

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The Independent Football

Until Matthew Etherington scored, the most exciting thing that happened was the pre-match parade of Stoke's 1972 League Cup winners. What followed was 72 minutes of the kind of stalemate that must have been unfolding when a bored hack first added mid-table mediocrity to the lexicon of football reporting. At least those in the crowd who had been around 40 years ago could close their eyes and think of Terry Conroy.

But then a Norwich side whose quest for a point had been underpinned by some impressively resolute defending suddenly gave way amid confusion over a throw-in, given initially Norwich's way by the referee Michael Oliver but then overruled after a signal from his assistant.

Marc Wilson took it, Cameron Jerome flicked the ball on and Matthew Etherington took full advantage as Norwich's Elliott Ward pulled out of a challenge, advancing on John Ruddy's goal and beating the Norwich goalkeeper at the near post.

"It was there for everybodyto see that it was a Norwich throw," their manager, Paul Lambert, said afterwards.

"The referee raises his hand a little as if it is a Norwich throw but the linesman has overruled him for some reason. The referee admitted to me in the tunnel that he was giving it to us.

"Our lads think it is our throw, we're caught out of position and we lose a bad goal. It is disappointing to lose like that because we had defended well and up to that point John had had only one save to make."

Lambert's frustration was understandable. Yet had he complained about his own players' slack defending you felt he would have been within his rights to do so, whatever the merits of the decision. Ward, in particular, seemed to be right in position to block Etherington's progress and Ruddy's positioning was not good, leaving the winger a big gap to aim for.

It was in complete contrast to the praise he was correctly given for the save that kept out a Peter Crouch effort at point-blank range in the first half, but for which the home side's dominance of attacking possession would have been appropriately rewarded, tedious though the football had been.

Norwich, beaten only three times in 12 Premier League games before this, had been set up to keep a clean sheet, deploying only Grant Holt in a striker's role. Stoke, whose only League goals in two months had been the result of headers from set-plays, were not threatening to stray from their usual methodology.

Jonathan Walters set up the hard-working Dean Whitehead for a shot that might have tested Ruddy more but, save for a couple of half-chances from which Holt could not profit, nothing much happened until a cross from Ryan Shotton from the right flank brought Crouch into the game.

A block by Bradley Johnson foiled the big striker at the first attempt but he looked sure to score when the ball rebounded to him. He struck it ferociously but Ruddy somehow got inthe way.

Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, swapped both his strikers just before the goal but admitted he might have enjoyed some good fortune over the goal.

"If it was a Norwich throw then we have had a bit of luck but I felt that overall we deserved the result," he said, accepting that after a run of only two wins in 10 matches in the Premier League it was a result his side needed, given that their next three fixtures are against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City.

"People can forget that we have played 44 games this season, been to the last 32 in Europe and are in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. This club has never had a sequence of games like it and it takes its toll.

"Yet we have got a great result at Crawley in the FA Cup despite playing most of the game with 10 men, then we have beaten Swansea and now won today. The lads have worked really hard. We were the only team going forward to try to win the game today and we deserved the result."

Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Wilkinson (Pennant, 25), Shawcross, Huth, Wilson; Shotton, Whelan, Whitehead, Etherington; Crouch (Jones, 69), Walters (Jerome, 69).

Norwich (4-4-1-1): Ruddy; Martin, Ward, Whitbread, Naughton; Pilkington (Jackson, ht), Howson (Wilbraham, 75), Johnson (Fox, 79), Surman; E Bennett; Holt.

Referee Michael Oliver.

Man of the match Whitehead (Stoke).

Match rating 6/10.