They say that the best refereeing performances are the ones you don’t notice, but Mark Clattenburg was never going to be that lucky on his return to Premier League action.
The St Mary's crowd were all too aware that it was Clattenburg's first match back in the middle since being accused of making a racist remark to John Obi Mikel during the Chelsea versus Manchester United match on 28 October, and he spent most of the game with their jeers ringing in his ears, while both managers felt that a refereeing error had played a part in the goal their team had conceded.
It is a poor game when the referee is the central figure, and this one certainly qualified. The home supporters had hoped to see Saints move back out of the bottom three with a third successive win but instead Robert Snodgrass's equaliser allowed Norwich to stretch their unbeaten league run to seven matches with their fourth successive draw on the road – despite the absence of England goalkeeper John Ruddy, who will miss three months after surgery this weekend on a thigh injury.
The chants of "You're not fit to referee" began after 23 minutes of frustration for the home fans but they were overjoyed nine minutes later as Clattenburg finally awarded their team a free-kick and even more delighted when it led to a goal – and one he should probably have disallowed. Adam Lallana flighted the ball in from the left, and it hit Lambert's arm before rebounding back off Grant Holt and dropping for the Saints top scorer to poke in his sixth goal of the season, and only the second Norwich had conceded in five games.
"I think [it was handball] but it was difficult for the referee and there were a lot of bodies around," Chris Hughton, the Norwich manager, said. "He's an excellent referee and I speak for most when I say I'm delighted to see him back. We need the best referees performing week in and week out."
Norwich levelled late in the first half thanks to a dreadful error by Paulo Gazzaniga, the goalkeeper, but Nigel Adkins, the Southampton manager, questioned Clattenburg's award of a free-kick for Nathaniel Clyne's challenge on Snodgrass, who picked himself up to bend the ball round a poorly set-up wall and under Gazzaniga's dive.
"I didn't think it was a free-kick and I'm disappointed it was given but the keeper knows he's got to save that," Adkins said. "I think he [Clattenburg] made some interesting calls, but he's a fine referee and I'm glad to see him back." After a dismal second half, blowing the final whistle was Clattenburg's best decision of the night – and about the only one that nobody disputed.
Man of the Match Lallana.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).