Nightmare start is too much to overcome
Chris LakeyTranmere Rovers 3, Norwich City 1: It was like a belated April Fool's joke - not that Paul Lambert will have seen the funny side. The brakes were put on City's seemingly inexorable return to the Championship by a Tranmere side fighting for their League One survival - but the game will live long in the memory for some of the wrong reasons.Chris Lakey
Tranmere Rovers 3, Norwich City 1
It was like a belated April Fool's joke - not that Paul Lambert will have seen the funny side.
The brakes were put on City's seemingly inexorable return to the Championship by a Tranmere side fighting for their League One survival - but the game will live long in the memory for some of the wrong reasons. Such as the referee.
City were stunned by an early double-barrelled blast as Ian Thomas-Moore twice scored from the spot - with just 12 minutes on the clock.
But the visiting fans behind the goal howled that both penalty decisions - the second of which saw goalkeeper Fraser Forster sent off - were wrong, and were even more angry when Craig Curran put Tranmere three up after half an hour after clearly handling the ball before rifling past substitute keeper Declan Rudd.
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The temperature was rarely short of red-hot as City fought bravely to right the injustices, but Lambert and head of football operations Gary Karsa were sent to the stands by referee Eddie Ilderton a minute after Grant Holt pulled one back with his 29th of the season - the City boss' only infringement to go on to the pitch and kick a ball towards where a free-kick was to be taken while Karsa was dismissed for allegedly using bad language.
He was clearly frustrated as Tranmere tried to slow the game down and waste time, but to their credit, the only thing slowing City down was tired legs.
But the opening 45 minutes were the equivalent of football suicide, with Mr Ilderton egging on the poor victim - and City were always up against it.
The scoreline will suggest that it wasn't the City hunting for a club record 11th away win of the season, or the City that had an 11-point lead in League One, or the City that will still win promotion back to the Championship.
But maybe the best team lost, maybe against the odds they proved in defeat just why they're the best team in the division.
Lambert kept faith with Stephen Elliott as the man to partner Grant Holt in attack, with Chris Martin on the bench for the second game in a row, despite his goal-scoring heroics against Leeds last Saturday.
Korey Smith was, as expected, absent because of a dead leg sustained during that game, with Stephen Hughes stepping into the right midfield berth.
City headed forward from the kick-off, Darel Russell working well with Russell Martin on the right but putting too much behind his cross.
But within four minutes Russell was involved at the other end when he blocked Terry Gornell's goalbound flick from a corner, the ball hitting his upper arm. Tranmere appealed for a penalty, but Mr Ilderton gave nothing - until he saw his assistant's flag, and immediately pointed to the spot.
City were furious, Russell Martin was booked in the protests - and when the fuss died down Thomas-Moore stepped up to put the hosts ahead.
Not the start City wanted - but their problems were doubled after just 10 minutes when Thomas-Moore intercepted a sloppy Gary Doherty back-pass, headed into the area and Forster brought him down. This time there was no argument, even though the suggestion was that the striker went down rather too easily. But contact was made, Forster was sent off for the second time this season and Rudd, who replaced Simon Lappin, picked the ball out of the net as Thomas-Moore scored again.
It was an amazing start to the game for the Canaries - and one of their biggest challenges of the campaign.
However, they began to enjoy a long spell of possession as they regrouped. Elliott saw a shot skid away from goal on 21 minutes, and then a brilliant piece of backtracking from Ian Goodison denied Holt a goal as he rounded the keeper and aimed into an empty net.
They were encouraging signs for the big travelling contingent, although Rudd had to save well at his near post from Curran after Russell had given away possession cheaply.
But from the resulting corner, disaster struck a third time. Gornell got in a shot which struck Michael Nelson and fell nicely for Curran, but while City players thought he'd handled it - and it looked like had had - he got on with the job and rifled it past Rudd.
The hope that had been there was vanishing fast, but it was becoming Keystone Cops football.
Rudd dived at the feet of Paul McLaren to prevent it getting even worse while at the other end Tranmere keeper Luke Daniels saved a long-ranger from Russell while Elliott was within inches of getting on the end of Holt's cross. Nelson, Doherty and Holt all had efforts blocked in a goalmouth scramble. It was great entertainment for the TV audience, but Lambert must have been fuming.
As half-time approached, City were creating chances at both ends - and playing into Tranmere's hands as that usually reliable defence creaked. Thomas-Moore clipped one just wide in time added on, but Tranmere would have been absolutely delighted at their first-half haul.
City needed to right a few wrongs after the break, and Lambert made his first voluntary change, Chris Martin coming on for Elliott.
Martin was involved straight away with a free-kick deflected by John Welsh, and later forced the keeper down to keep out a left-footer.
But on 58 minutes he set City on the way to a possible comeback, keeping Doherty's raking ball in down on the right, before putting in a low cross which Holt controlled and planted into the back of the net.
Tranmere keeper Luke Daniels felt the ball had gone out of play before Martin's cross came in - and was booked for his protests - but the linesman felt otherwise and the goal stood.
It gave City a glimmer of hope, although they needed Rudd to save brilliantly with his feet to deny Gornell.
By that time there were spare seats on the City bench and it was difficult to know where to look next.
Curran lashed one wide when a bit of patience might have put the game beyond City's reach for good and Ash Taylor could have made certain but saw his goalbound shot hit team-mate Marlon Broomes.
Hoolahan shot wide from close range on 82 minutes and that was just about it for City.
Thomas-Moore hit the post with the outside of his foot soon after as City began to suffer under the burden of playing a man short. No excuse, just fact.
Holt went flying in the area under challenge from substitute Joss Labadie, but a referee who seemed to have a penchant for spot-kicks at that end of the pitch was having none of it - and City had to come to terms with only their seventh League One defeat in 39 matches this season.