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Nationwide Division One, 27/1/01
Norwich City
Snot and grot
By Ian Grant

How you choose to spend your Saturday afternoons is a matter of choice. Those of us who decide to devote them to football do so for a number of reasons. More than anything, it's an escape from everything else. For the majority of the ninety minutes, it's simply impossible to think about anything except what's happening in front of you - the rest of your life, whether good, bad or indifferent, is banished for a couple of hours. When you're there because you want to be, it all makes sense.

When the choice is made for you, on the other hand, it makes no sense at all. Were it not for fifty quid's worth of train and match tickets, I would've stayed in bed on Saturday morning. My headful of cold germs had successfully forced the evacuation of any intelligent life from my skull, replacing it with snot and grot. I had no desire to get out from underneath my duvet, let alone leave the house, let alone travel to bloody Norfolk for a football match.

In such a state, you gain a small insight into the perspective of the mythical "neutral". You stand around and watch, attempting to disappear inside the relative warmth of your clothes. You murmur encouragement rather than bellow it, for fear of doing further damage to your throat. You still care about the result, of course...but so much of supporting the team is becoming so completely engulfed by it all that you lose any perspective or distance. Instead, you're acutely aware of perspective and distance as those around you abandon control in response to the opposition's late winner, while you close your eyes and silently pray for a speedy return to the warmth of home.

You don't want to be here. You shouldn't be here. You had a choice, you should've exercised it.

Still, the detached point of view is perhaps useful here...although having a few more braincells at my disposal would be good too. Somehow, this just wasn't a match that made any particular sense. From the moment that the team selections were announced, it gave cause for furrowed brows and general puzzlement. By the end, that sense of the curious had given way to outright anger and frustration, but the general theme was still much the same.

It's easy to take issue with Graham Taylor's line-up. To replace James Panayi with Steve Palmer at left back seems unnecessarily harsh - although Palmer did a generally competent job, there's little reason to believe that Panayi wouldn't have done the same. As for the rest, it's probably important to remember that we're only allowed to name eleven players - while the absence of wide options in the shape of Peter Kennedy and Tommy Smith was keenly felt, the influence of a rejuvenated Heidar Helguson might have won us the points. You can't include everyone. Besides, we lost because of other factors.

The first half was strangely nondescript. Strangely, because it still nearly delivered four goals, two for each side. The only constant factor was the noise from the away section - forget terracing, it's corrugated iron roofs that ought to be preserved - as the football failed to ignite. A goal would've done the trick, as it did after the interval. But, despite opportunities, that goal wouldn't come.

For our part, we lacked the pace to get behind the City defence and the width to provide crosses. The result was a series of speculative efforts from distance - two attempted lobs from Tommy Mooney from progressively further out and an awkward half-volley from Noel-Williams, none of which hit the target.

Only when the forwards took it upon themselves to spread out to the flanks did we look genuinely dangerous. Meanwhile, Helguson patrolled the penalty area in predatorial fashion. The combination of the two created the first clear chance of the match after ten minutes. It was Mooney's cross from down by the left-hand corner flag, hooked in towards the far post. There, Helguson pulled away behind his marker, brought the ball down and took aim from eight yards. His aim was true, but Marshall had flung himself forward, spreading everything he had to spread. Even if the save might not have been entirely deliberate, it was still outstanding.

With Micah Hyde, Allan Nielsen and Paolo Vernazza dominating the midfield - let's not fall into the trap of thinking that our tactics were entirely ineffective - we assumed some measure of control. Norwich attacks were sporadic and largely without conclusion. Indeed, it was thirty minutes before they managed a shot - Roberts' bobbling effort across and wide, followed shortly afterwards by Abbey's tame header to Chamberlain.

Still, as the game rambled on rather erratically, there were some signs of what was to come in the second half. Undoubtedly, Norwich have some useful footballers - in particular, Abbey appears to be a promising talent. But that was not their route to success on this occasion. Rather, they were to discover that we struggled against the height of Roberts and others when crosses came in. When Allan Nielsen was forced to deflect Mackay's looping header over his own bar, after Norwich players had won a series of aerial challenges inside the area and Alec Chamberlain had been stranded in no man's land, the alarm bells started a-ringing.

Almost immediately, Marshall was again in action at the other end. In fact, he made rather a hash of dealing with Noel-Williams angled shot, although the charitable part of me says that he might've been unsighted. As he pushed it away with both hands, Helguson was following in...but he couldn't lift the ball over the grounded keeper.

In truth, the whole thing was considerably less exciting than my rendition of the highlights probably makes it sound. Long, sterile passages were dominated by the decisions of a weak, nervous referee, who appeared to lurch between lenience and letter-of-the-law strictness at random. Undoubtedly, the first yellow card for Gifton Noel-Williams was the most significant of Mr Robinson's actions. Typically, it was a confusion of contradictory thought...and it rather indicated that the linesman probably should've been taking charge of the whole thing.

When the Watford striker first clattered Kenton on the touchline, the assistant rightly flagged for the foul that had taken place under his nose and the referee, from a distance, went with that verdict. There was no card, but you could reasonably argue that it might've been warranted. When Noel-Williams appeared to repeat his aggression towards Kenton a few minutes later, the officials were in the same positions. This time, however, there was no flag from the linesman, except for a Watford throw. Which was correct, since there had been no foul - Kenton's out-stretched kicking leg had collided with his opponent, nothing else. But the referee apparently knew better, booking the striker without bothering to consult his colleague. That, frankly, is bollocks.

The sense of injustice continued as Micah Hyde was booked for a similar incident on the other touchline, something that I didn't see but left him utterly incensed. This kind of nonsense appeared to be pushing the football to one side as injury time began. Concentration started to waver, the germs in my system began to make their presence known again.

On the edge of the area, however, Abbey hadn't yet stopped for half-time. With no other options available and a defender at his back, his sudden, swivelling volley was quite brilliant. It certainly caught Chamberlain by surprise as it looped and span towards goal, yet the keeper managed to get across to shove it around the post. In many ways, that summed up the first forty-five minutes - chances and excitement came from nowhere, then immediately disappeared.

Anyone who'd question our tactics should also remember that everything went to plan after the interval. Well, for a while. We took charge of the opening period, continuing to appear purposeful in everything that we did. With the notable exception of Vernazza's class (for once, it's not overly simplistic to suggest that he's too good for this level) and Mooney's ambitious shooting, there was little that strayed from the formulaic. Still, the formula wasn't far wrong.

After four minutes, we saw Vernazza's work-rate as he chased back to snuff out a City break. Chamberlain cleared up to Helguson who, showing an instinct for goal that had recently deserted him, tried to lob Marshall from twenty yards and was unlucky to see his attempt land on the roof of the net. Almost immediately, we were ahead. Careful approach work on the right offered Neil Cox the chance to cross. In the six yard box, Helguson rose highest to head home. Simple.

That brought an immediate response from the home side. Kenton emerged from a midfield scuffle to run towards goal, darting past Darren Ward's hesitant non-challenge as he reached the penalty area. Chamberlain saved superbly from the low shot, then out-did himself in improvising a clearance, risking the most bizarre of own goals, as Roberts tried to pounce on the rebound - the ball bounced up, the keeper rolled on his back to hook it over his own bar with his boot. From the flag-kick, Chamberlain was again in action to deflect the ball around the post when it threatened to curl directly into the far corner.

We protected our lead, but only just. From a whipped cross, Roberts got a near post touch and Chamberlain was again superb in denying him with a reflexive save. So you could say that Norwich were threatening an equaliser before Noel-Williams' dismissal. Equally, it felt as if this period represented their most determined attempt - if we could weather the storm for a while, then we could take control once more. The home crowd was still subdued as Noel-Williams stupidly ploughed into Llewellyn. It was immediately aroused as the referee showed his red card. It was exactly what we didn't want.

For the remainder, we were without a target man. Sure, Helguson battled incredibly hard, but it's not a role that he's ever seemed comfortable with. You wondered whether the pace of Tommy Smith might give Norwich something to worry about, even if it would've meant a reduction in midfield numbers. As it was, we tried to fight our way through to full-time without any changes.

For a time, we defended along the eighteen yard line. For a time, we managed to push out a little. Regardless, we were under constant pressure, particularly from crosses. Having taken the decision to charge off his line whenever the ball was flung into the box, Chamberlain relied on luck that was eventually to run out. From unconvincing punches, both Sutch and Nedergaard unsuccessfully volleyed shots back towards goal.

Panic was starting to set in. It didn't seem to affect Micah Hyde, mind you. He dwelt on the ball inside the area, dribbled it around until he was surrounded by three yellow shirts just six yards from his own goal. Fortunately, he managed to squeeze his clearance away from the danger area...but most of us would've been very grateful if he'd just clouted it away, however unsubtle that might've been. The same player was responsible for a rare shot at the other end shortly afterwards, drilling an effort at Marshall after a run from the right.

Then, two moments that teased us into thinking that it might still be our day. First, Norwich broke swiftly and we found that our eagerness to gain some purchase in midfield had left us short of numbers at the back. When the cross came in from the left, Ward was marking three opponents. Coote should've scored with a free header, but mis-timed it enough that it bounced weakly into Chamberlain's grateful hands.

Another break, after Mooney had carelessly given away the ball at the end of a rampaging run, led to another cross from the left and another desperate half-punch from Chamberlain. This time, the ball fell to the feet of Abbey, who had space to control and blast a shot against the face of the crossbar. We were living very dangerously indeed. But we could see safety, less than ten minutes away.

Our hopes were extinguished by Nedergaard's fine equaliser, hit instantly and crisply from eighteen yards when a hopeful header fell his way. After all the kerfuffle, the utter mayhem that had surrounded Norwich's recent attempts to level the scores, it had an almost eerie quality about it.

In which case, the winner was a return to normality. From Dalglish's corner, Chamberlain came and punched without power for the umpteenth time. It dropped for Marshall to volley, he did so sweetly. From our position, we were right behind the shot as it headed for the top corner. We had men on the line, but I'm not sure that they would've kept it out. Anyway, it was irrelevant - from his floored position, Chamberlain got a hand to it and tried to palm it back over the bar. Sadly, he only managed to push it between the defenders on the posts and into the net.

What followed was simply disgraceful. Rather than running to the home supporters behind the goal, Marshall decided to lead his colleagues to the touchline in front of the away section. There, barely more than a metre from the furious Watford fans and separated only by advertising hoardings, they gestured openly and victoriously. Clenched fists, hands cupped to ears, the full repertoire. Only extremely prompt and effective action from the police and (the majority of) the stewards prevented serious trouble.

Now, it's worth emphasising that I believe most complaints by fans against players to be laughable. It's amazing how people who swear, abuse and insult opposition players for ninety minutes suddenly become vigorous advocates of Victorian moral virtue when roles are temporarily reversed. It's worth emphasising, because Marshall's thoroughly irresponsible actions were entirely deserving of attention from the police.

If a player makes a V-sign at the crowd, it's an action that hurts no-one. If a player deliberately and knowingly incites serious disorder, that's another matter altogether. For all I know - and, certainly, for all Marshall knew - there might've been children in the front rows that were quickly engulfed in anger, pushing, shoving, fighting, shouting. Perhaps, in a perfect world, the Norwich players' celebrations wouldn't have been an open, obvious invitation for a ruck. In this world, however, they were exactly that. They knew it too. And, no, that doesn't excuse those from "our" side who were only too eager to accept the invitation.

As a consequence, the remaining minutes of football barely registered. An extremely fragile, ugly order was restored while the team tried to grab a point, with only Mooney's low free kick at Marshall coming close. Bearing in mind the on-going tensions at the front of the stand, it might've been a good thing that we didn't score. It had all gone very, very wrong. More than ever, I wanted to go home.

Most of the time, football's great. I mean, BSaD is wholly devoted to the idea that it's great, even when it's not great. If you know what I mean.

On Saturday, football was just bloody horrible. I couldn't wait to leave it behind.