Carrow Road fell silent, momentarily, as the magnitude of the heresy sank in. A match bereft of quality and creativity was deep into added time when Leroy Fer stroked what appeared to be Norwich’s winning goal into an unguarded net from a throw in conceded in a moment of charity.
Cue chaos, and that rarest commodity, common sense. Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall, who had put the ball out midway in his own half, so that Norwich’s Alex Tettey could be tended to, was incandescent with rage. He threw himself into a melee of 18 players, arguing about Fer’s defiance of the conventions of his trade.
The Dutch midfield player insisted repeatedly in subsequent interviews that he intended to score when he received the fateful throw in by Ricky van Wolfswinkel. “If that is the case he has to take a long hard look at himself,” said the Cardiff manager Malky Mackay, echoing universal disgust at such opportunism.
“It was pure gamesmanship, poor sportsmanship. There is a lot of respect for people in this game, and you can lose that quickly. Everyone in the stadium apart from the boy himself was shocked. It would have been an awful end to the game. It would have reflected poorly on our League, which is held in high regard around the world.”
Referee Mike Jones remained calm and thought on his feet. Despite the likelihood his initiative will not go down well with his employers at the Premier League, he deserves the highest praise for prioritising the spirit of the game above the application of its rules.
By appearing to suggest he hadn’t blown to permit the throw in to be taken, he prevented an unseemly charade. Mackay revealed the Norwich manager Chris Hughton and his assistant Colin Calderwood had confirmed immediately that had the goal been given, they would have allowed Cardiff to walk the ball into the net from the resultant kick off.
“They’re good men,” said Mackay. “Common sense prevailed. Sometimes that has to take precedence over the rules. Otherwise it would have been a mockery.”
Hughton, who chose not to dwell on Fer’s cynicism, was similarly relieved. “I have no problems with how things worked out,” he said. “It was strange, very strange. That was not the way to win a game.”
The incident had echoes of Arsenal’s controversial FA Cup tie against Sheffield United in 1999, which was replayed when Kanu scored an unfair winner. It added novelty value to the sort of contest the Premier League marketing men mention as an afterthought in the small print of a £5 billion television contract.
Survival was a priority – a worthy aim, given the resources and recent history of each club, but insufficient to satisfy the new breed of executive, owner or fan.
Hughton had to endure a dim-witted chorus of “you don’t know what you’re doing” when he substituted Gary Hooper 18 minutes from time. He was vulnerable to the frustration stoked by a series of close-range reaction saves from Marshall on his return to Carrow Road.
Mackay received a contrastingly warm welcome. He made 212 starts in his six years at Norwich, and home fans serenaded him with chants of “he scored against the scum” in reference to a two-goal appearance against bitter rivals Ipswich in less pressurised times.
Autumn is a season of mists and mysteries, mellow fruitfulness and fretful football managers. Mackay’s professional relationship with Vincent Tan, Cardiff’s Thai benefactor, is thin to the point of invisibility.
He is a prisoner of Tan’s egotism and ignorance, but since nonsensical ambitions of a top-four finish are backed by a nine-figure investment, he cannot afford a voice.
He will not struggle to find an alternative employer, if the need arises, and the conspiracy theorists will relish the symmetry of him returning to Norwich, should Hughton be deemed expendable. Tellingly, his cautionary words to Craig Bellamy about the perils of management – “it can all go wrong quickly” – were heartfelt.
His situation is confused by recurring rumours of Tan’s intention to float the club on the Stock Exchange. Alarm has not been eased by the claim of Cardiff chairman Mehmet Dalman that such a prospect is “news to me.”
Hughton, universally regarded as one of the game’s most diligent and thoughtful managers, is pushing gently against the perception, spread by his chief executive, that he must deliver a top-ten finish. He could have done with a win, and was ultimately grateful to his goalkeeper John Ruddy’s best moment, a point blank save to deny Jordan Mutch.
His status is complicated immeasurably by the contempt he generates as the most prominent black manager in the domestic game. Hughton admits he has been badly hurt by two bouts of racist abuse, directed at him by fans on Facebook.
He is reassured by the club’s determination to root out abusers, and to ban them for life, but will need to have a quiet word with Fer. His conduct was unusual, and unforgiveable.
Norwich (4-1-4-1): Ruddy; Martin, Turner, Bassong, Olsson; Tettey; Pilkington (Redmond, 72), Fer, Howson ( van Wolfswinkel, 86), Snodgrass; Hooper (Elmander, 72). .
Cardiff (4-1-4-1): Marshall; Theophile-Catherine, Caulker, Turner Taylor; Medel (Bellamy, 72); Odemwingie (Cowie, h-t) Kim (Gunnarsson, h-t) Mutch, Whittingham; Campbell.
Referee: Mike Jones.
Man of the match: Marshall (Cardiff)
Match rating: 5/10