NEVER mind rumours of ‘Comical Ali’ turning up at Blackburn, all the talk was about Madcap Mick across the Pennines.
Twenty-four hours after reports surfaced about a rookie coach called Judan Ali – subject of a Bollywood movie, no less – being appointed at Ewood Park, there was a similar high farce at Huddersfield. Well, it is pantomime season.
The villain taking centre stage was Hertfordshire-based referee Mick Russell, whose theatrics on Saturday will be talked about by Town and Owls supporters for years to come.
Russell’s much-publicised failure to dismiss visiting player Jeremy Helan, despite clearly cautioning him twice in the space of 17 first-half minutes, left the holiday crowd aghast as another dramatic chapter in the history of recent fixtures between these derby rivals was written.
Jordan Rhodes’s four-goal Hillsborough haul was followed by the Owls’ definitive victory at Town in April which effectively ended the hosts’ automatic promotion hopes.
There was also Town’s win at S6 in September, a crazy encounter which saw two players sent off and nine cautioned in total. And then, to top it all, there was Saturday.
Russell’s grave mistake in writing the name and number of Michail Antonio into his notebook in the ninth minute instead of Helan’s, despite showing the latter a yellow card, proved the major talking point.
While Town were rightfully aggrieved that Helan stayed on the pitch for over two-thirds of the game, you sense that would have been nothing to their fury had the French loanee actually scored a winner. Then you would have been going into the realms of a major diplomatic incident.
What about the take on proceedings by the man himself, Helan?
He admitted: “It was quite bizarre. I’m not the referee; I played 90 minutes and was very happy to do so.”
Helan may have played a fairly straight bat to questioning, but home captain Keith Southern was far less circumspect, calling the decision not to dismiss Helan as “scandalous”, echoing the utterances of thousands of Town fans in the process.
That said, home defender Anthony Gerrard admitted to being a tad confused following both of Helan’s ‘bookings’ – in the ninth and 26th minutes respectively – but probably not as much as Russell though.
Gerrard said: “To be fair, I thought it was two different players and thought one (booking) was Antonio and the other was Helan. But a few of the lads were moaning and shouting at the referee. But to be honest, I did not get involved. The referee is only human and can mess up.”
Russell’s role apart, the derby was largely as dull as dishwater, with the commitment on show in teeming rain failing to be matched in terms of quality.
Town manager Simon Grayson rang the changes with Ollie Norwood, Peter Clarke, Sean Scannell and James Vaughan dropping to the bench, although with the latter it was more a case of protect -ing him from a fifth booking of
the season which would have ruled him out of tomorrow’s trip to Leicester City.
Chris Atkinson, Joel Lynch, Adam Hammill and Simon Church all started, with Scottish teenager Murray Wallace handed his full debut.
But the re-jigging of his line-up failed to pay off significantly for Grayson, whose side’s only worthwhile first-half effort saw Church, who had a quiet afternoon, seeing his point-blank effort blocked by Chris Kirkland on the stroke of half-time following Hammill’s cross.
By and large, Wednesday – seeking their fourth successive victory to continue their December renaissance – held sway with the game’s central figure, Helan, spurning a great early chance to fire them in front after racing clear, his effort saved by Alex Smithies.
Soon after came the controversy, when he was shown his first yellow for diving after he tumbled in the box.
Or not, as events played out, with the name of Antonio, despite him being nowhere near the incident, going into the book.
Smithies then cleared a loose ball in the nick of time with the recalled Gary Madine waiting to pounce after he failed to hold onto David Prutton’s strike,s ahead of Russell’s blooper in not dismissing Helan after carding him for an industrial challenge on Hammill.
Several players, including Jack Hunt, tried to point out that Helan had previously been cautioned with Grayson subsequently continuing the protests with fourth official Duncan Street and assistant referee Wayne Grunnill. But the game continued, to the apoplexy of most.
Cries of “you don’t know who you’re booking” followed for the rest of the half with Russell unceremoniously booed off at the interval.
TV evidence at half-time highlighted Russell’s error, but despite railing at the injustice, it failed to fire up Town in their quest for a first victory since November 10 as their winless streak continued.
Attacking their 3,908 following packed into the away end, Antonio dragged an early effort just wide for the Owls, with Madine agonisingly just failing to convert a low cross from Antonio.
Southern then headed at Kirkland before the disappointing Jermaine Beckford hooked over, with play petering out until both sides spurned chances to win it late on.
Mamady Sidibe saw his header from Rhys McCabe’s corner saved impressively by Smithies, then at the other end, fellow substitute Vaughan blazed just wide after haring clear.
But the talk was all about Russell afterwards, with Grayson summing things up for many by saying: “It is disappointing when, after a local derby match, you end up talking about the referee, rather than what happened on the pitch.”