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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 19/01/03, 12pm
Norwich City
By Ian Grant

I've never quite got the hang of evolutionary theory, I must admit. True, it's not something that presents too much of a problem in every day life. After all, my own evolution and that of the species to which I belong happen quietly and very, very, very slowly without any great effort on my part. But it's a bit of a nagging doubt nonetheless.

I dare say that I've missed something obvious, but it just seems to me that there's a bit of a flaw. It's the time involved that disturbs me, really. Thousands and thousands and millions and millions of years, just to develop each species into something that might actually be capable of survival in its chosen environment. And yet if it took that long to adapt, wouldn't pretty much everything be extinct by the time that evolution got around to helping out?

I mean, if a prototype mole has to wait for thousands of years for evolution to provide it with suitable implements for digging tunnels, then it'll have to cope without tunnels in the meantime. In which case, how did the mole survive as a species? There are better examples, perhaps - after all, other rodents manage to dig burrows, so the mole might've been able to get along until the strong claws arrived from the mail order catalogue. But how did bats manage to get anything done while their astonishing "echo-location" system was in manufacture? How did kangaroos keep their young generations safe until evolution provided them with fit-for-purpose pouches? How did seals, dolphins and whales convert from land to water without just drowning en masse? And even if they didn't drown, how did they manage to eat before they'd adapted so elegantly to life in the water - the fish would've seen 'em coming a mile away, surely?

It's all a bit dubious as far as I'm concerned. We've not even touched on the whole issue of decision-making - who or what arbitrates if one kangaroo likes the pouch idea, but another fancies carrying her youngster in some kind of attractive hat? - but that's probably best left for another time. I've illustrated the point, I hope...and I've probably illustrated why I ended up doing an English degree rather than Biology too....

As far as we're concerned, evolution can get us only so far. The days spent on the training pitch, practising and refining and working on solutions to problems, are essential and have brought us from near-extinction to a fairly stable existence. We have survived, for now. While a defeat would've left us in the bottom half for the first time in a long while, the threat of relegation has long been averted. We'll still be around next season, ready to continue the process. Thousands, millions of years. Keep going, keep surviving, keep evolving.

But it takes a bit more than patience sometimes. Sometimes, it takes a lunatic centre forward to take it upon himself to charge at the ball in the last minute, to thump his head against the hard leather with brain-rattling force, to send it hurtling past the helpless opposition keeper, to celebrate by risking injury with a bone-shuddering leap onto his backside. Sometimes, you've got to take your destiny into your own hands.

This was a wearisome game. A dreary, generally uneventful, rarely attractive football match between two largely uninspired sides. And played at a ludicrous time, just for effect. The equivalent of being dragged from your bed at five o'clock in the morning and forced to watch back-to-back episodes of "Heartbeat", while being kept awake by periodic prodding with a blunt stick. Probably the most forgettable game since...erm, I can't remember. But with a reward for anyone who managed to stick with it until the end.

Fairly obviously, we badly needed to win it. Ideally, we would've won it well, out-playing and out-fighting Norwich and restoring much of our battered confidence in the process. That didn't happen, needless to say. But we still had to prove something. We had to battle, to scrap, to play honestly after such a shabby, deceitful display at Millwall. We did that, at least. It was enough, just about.

More importantly, we couldn't afford to explore the alternative scenario. In a way, we're back to the start of the season, when a series of away defeats meant that the importance of every home game was amplified far beyond the three points. Once again, and despite the work put in so far, the season hangs in the balance, and you suspect that a untimely failure of our form at Vicarage Road might have fairly dire consequences. It's about confidence, as ever.

So, it's rather hard to elevate the general muddle that preceded Heidar Helguson's vital winner above mere preamble. Certainly, we tried plenty hard enough. Which is good. Equally certainly, it was fairly hard to work out exactly what both sides were trying to do for large, stagnant periods of the match. Which is much less good, although it matters less than it might've done. I'm wandering around in circles, unable to find a particularly apposite summary of proceedings...and that, in itself, is probably the very apposite summary that I'm looking for.

Ho. Hum. Fans of notebook statistics will be delighted to know that the first half occupied a full one and a half pages. Which is roughly average. However, the fact that more than a third of those notes cover the first sixteen minutes and more than another third cover the final five would indicate, entirely accurately, that this was a half with a gaping hole at its centre. Less a hole and more of a landfill site, perhaps.

Despite the proclamations of new leaves and suchlike, the opening ten minutes brought a couple of fairly enthusiastic flirtations with disaster. Had we continued the pattern of last Saturday and done more than merely flirt, you imagine that it'd have been a rather different, and much more miserable, afternoon. As it was, we were grateful to Mark Rivers for directing his powerful header wide of the goal with six minutes gone, after Nielsen (A.) had gifted Nielsen (D.) with the crossing opportunity by an errant pass. It was a decent chance, and an even better one fell for Nielsen (D.) himself a couple of minutes later as Neil Cox missed his kick at a vital moment. Approaching goal at an angle, the striker's well-struck finish was denied by a very fine save from Alec Chamberlain, pushing the ball around the post with a reflexive left hand.

All the while, frustration built. The complaints from the stands, left to echo around the ground in the absence of any more atmospheric sound to drown them out, reached crescendo as Watford passed up their first opening of any note - Nielsen (A.) broke with Jermaine Pennant in a central position and Neal Ardley further over to the right, but managed to hit the former with a pass intended for the latter and the moment was lost. It rather summed up the lack of coherence.

Even if Paolo Vernazza did a little better with a couple of shots from distance in the subsequent moments, one struck at the keeper and the other trundling comforably wide, we weren't doing much to threaten the Norwich goal. At the other end, Nielsen (D.) belted a shot into the Norwich fans in the Vic Road end. The sun came out, which was nice.

Clump. Clatter. Groan. Clump. Oof. Boot. Groan. "RUBBISH!" Clump. Clatter. Clump. Groan. Smack. Clump. Boot. Groan. Wallop. Smack. Clump. "Jesus!" Boot. Thump. Groan. Growl. Bosh. Smack. Clump. Groan. Clatter. Wallop. Bash. Thud. Groan. Boot. Ooh. Clump. Thump. Groan. "SORT IT AHT!" Bump. Smack. Wallop. Groan. Boo. Clump. Smack. Bosh....

Thus went the next twenty minutes, if you were listening from Occupation Road. Little happened, unattractively. And, once, two of the aforementioned "clatters" belonged to Paolo Vernazza, the grateful recipient of some lenient refereeing after he'd halted a Norwich break with a clear foul when his name was already in Mr Wiley's notebook. Lucky. He faded from the game thereafter, as if frightened of the official's steely glare. Otherwise, Nielsen (A.) headed over from a Neal Ardley cross - a mere half-chance, were it not for the fact that Green had come rather hastily from his line and left the goal unguarded - and Rivers hit a free kick into the wispy afternoon clouds. It was a pretty appalling game, all in all.

But it was about to get better, for no particular reason. It began with Russell hurdling a desperate challenge from Nielsen (A.) on the right and crossing towards Mulryne at the near post. He directed the ball past Alec Chamberlain with considerable force, and was unfortunate to see it rebound back from the upright. A minute later, and Marcus Gayle's misjudgement of a bouncing through-ball allowed Nielsen (D.) to break clear, the linesman's early flag making the neat finish irrelevant. Some doubt about the validity of the decision, it appears...although, as always, it was utterly impossible to judge from the Rookery.

We were mere moments away from a chorus of disapproval. The announcement that injury time would last for two minutes hardly raised spirits much...but, most unexpectedly, the action therein certainly did. For we suddenly found routes to goal, having failed to create anything much in the preceding forty-five minutes. From Jermaine Pennant's drifting cross, Heidar Helguson headed back to Green without any real power. Then Paul Robinson's hopeful long ball was contested and won by Helguson, nodding down for Micah Hyde to strike on the volley. It was straight at the keeper, but struck well enough to cause him to block and rely on his defenders to clear.

And there was more. In the fading seconds, brilliant work from Jermaine Pennant on the right of the area, darting down a blind alley and somehow cutting the ball back through the legs of two defenders. A helpful touch as it ran through the penalty area brought it to the feet of Nielsen (A.). And all that shooting practice during the week paid off, as he took a touch to buy a yard of space and then steered it decisively into the bottom corner from ten yards. A fine, well-constructed and superbly taken goal. As such, more than slightly out of keeping with everything else...but extremely welcome nevertheless. Especially for the players, who were cheered rather than jeered as they departed for the dressing room.

The second half, in the main, was something of an anticlimax. Yes, really. While the fact that the drab and shambolic stalemate took place more in the Norwich half than in ours could be seen as something of a victory for our spirit and determination, it was still a drab and shambolic stalemate. Passes went astray so regularly that it became the rule rather than the exception, and any kind of incisive attacking play disappeared from the agenda entirely.

That included the visitors' equaliser, which wandered in with a sheepish look on its face while no-one was looking. It wasn't much of a goal - Mulryne's cross eluding Roberts and ending up in the far corner via a deflection from Neil Cox's thigh - but it was rather less out of place than the opener. And it seemed appropriate somehow too, for this was a game that seemed to drain the life from its spectators...and a long, drawn-out search for a winner was a more effective instrument of exhaustion than an anxious wait for the final whistle.

Less than two-thirds of a page, if you're wondering.

And then we brought on Tommy Smith for the distinctly lacklustre Gifton Noel-Williams.

Which changed things, and for the better too. Prior to the substitution, we'd spent long periods of time whacking the ball around in the opposition half, but had barely betrayed the fact that we knew what the overall objective was. It wasn't very interesting. It wasn't very good. It was still better than last week. But the introduction of Tommy Smith added something - that little bit of movement, pace and skill - that we'd desperately lacked. It woke the Norwich defence up, it woke our midfield up. It probably won us the game, if you're prepared to overlook the knowledge that it had nothing to do with the winning goal....

When we attacked, it was with that extra touch of conviction. And, obviously, Ray Lewington had sent directions to the goal along with the young striker, which helped enormously. From Jermaine Pennant's chipped cross, Heidar Helguson headed at Green from a difficult angle. Then Pennant drove a pass up the right wing, Smith chested the ball smartly across to Helguson, and the striker was clear...except that his lack of pace quickly meant that he wasn't clear any more, causing him to delay his finish and eventually shoot tamely at the keeper. Still, progress.

Pleasingly, we finished the game as if we meant to win it. There was some courage in our attempts to mount pressure on the Norwich goal in the final ten minutes...not least from Heidar Helguson, who nearly lost his head in the most literal sense in flinging himself into a contest with an opponent's boot. After Jermaine Pennant won a rather fortunate free kick on the right, we forced a series of corners, sent drifting invitingly towards the near post by Anthony McNamee. And Marcus Gayle's touch from a Pennant cross set up Tommy Smith for a snap-shot, just too close to Green and caught safely. Still, encouraging to see the chance taken without the customary hesitation - although we struggled to create openings here, our finishing was of a much higher quality when we did get a sight of goal.

But it appeared that we'd be disappointed. While the point seemed safe enough, bearing in mind that (assuming that you don't count the goal) Norwich had failed to produce a single goal attempt in the entire half, three seemed beyond us. Until injury time, when one of those lovely Anthony McNamee corners finally got the finish it deserved. Heidar Helguson simply charged in from the edge of the area, meeting the ball without breaking his stride, and the header was past Green before he'd moved a muscle. As three quarters of Vicarage Road exploded from its slumber, Helguson continued his run to the corner flag to be engulfed by team-mates. A great, essential moment to end an often grim afternoon.

I've been less than complimentary about much of this, I know. But the result justifies virtually everything. We simply couldn't afford anything less, particularly as we now have two weeks to ponder the league position before being able to do anything about it. We needed it, and not only because of Millwall.

Much has been made of our largely atrocious away form in the last week or so. Much of it's true too. But there's a flipside, inevitably. For one of the major positives of this season has been the repeated ability to bounce back from some appalling results, to keep facing forward. Perhaps it was too much to expect for us to put last Saturday out of our minds completely, to forget about it so quickly. But, even if we looked unconvincing in the process, we have bounced back yet again.

Thank heavens.