QUESTION: WHEN does 24 equal seven?
Answer: When it’s in the eyes of referee Mick Russell.
The hapless Hertfordshire whistler provided by far the biggest talking point as a Town versus Sheffield Wednesday showdown for once failed to produce any goals.
There had been 19 in the previous seven clashes between the Yorkshire rivals – and both sides had good chances to bolster that tally.
But while the action will soon fade from the memory, the amazing mistake made by Russell, an experienced official who became a Football League linesman in 2000 and a referee in 2004, will surely keep cropping up in conversations and quizzes.
The controversy of two yellow cards for one player but no red, which was reminiscent of Graham Poll’s 2006 World Cup clanger involving Croatia’s Josip Simunic, occurred in the 25th minute, when Wednesday’s on-loan Manchester City wideman Jeremy Helan brought down Adam Hammill as he set off down the right flank.
Russell brandished a yellow, having already cautioned the Frenchman for diving under Jack Hunt’s ninth-minute penalty-area challenge.
Hunt was the first to ask why no red was produced.
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And he was soon followed by fellow Town players and manager Simon Grayson, who later said the official had apologised and told him he had logged Michail Antonio (No7) rather than Helan (24) for the first booking.
Even Wednesday’s official website had Helan down for the first offence, but the 20-year-old Frenchman was allowed to stay on the pitch.
At least he didn’t score, but Town were definitely hard done by, because Wednesday should have been down to 10 men and without the services of a decent player, who linked well with Antonio and rugged Reda Johnson as the visitors blended pace with power down the right flank.
Town showed five changes from the Boxing Day draw with Blackpool – Murray Wallace (at left-back), Joel Lynch (after suspension), Chris Atkinson, Hammill and Simon Church, playing the last match of his loan from Reading, all came in, with skipper Peter Clarke, injured Calum Woods, Oliver Norwood, Sean Scannell and James Vaughan dropping out.
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It was a bold move by the manager, who later explained that with loanee Jermaine Beckford ruled out at parent club Leicester tomorrow and Church back at Reading, he didn’t want to risk Vaughan getting an injury or a fifth booking ahead of the today’s cut-off for a one-match suspension.
The on-loan Norwich striker came off the bench for the final half hour, and came close to ending Town’s wait for a win – now nine matches – in stoppage time, when he was freed by fellow substitute Paul Dixon but shot wide.
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Town also fluffed a gilt-edged opportunity late in the first half, when Church was set up by Adam Clayton’s neat through ball only to be denied by the legs of keeper Chris Kirkland.
While Town started at pace and were always willing workers, all too often their passing and ball control left something to be desired.
At least there were dominant displays by centre-backs Lynch and Anthony Gerrard, who appears to be benefiting from a run of games.
And fortunately Wednesday, who had won their previous three and kept a fourth straight clean sheet on Saturday, were also lacking a cutting edge in front of goal – even with 11 men.