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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 24/04/04, 3.00pm
Norwich City
Seen any Norwich fans?
By Ian Grant

My God, they're everywhere....

At one point, selling "Look at the Stars" in Vicarage Road before the game, Dave Messenger takes a momentary break from directing confused visiting fans towards the programme sellers, barges his way through the endless stream of celebratory Canaries heading towards the ground, and mischievously asks of a couple of lads in yellow and green, shouting to make himself heard above the engines of about fifty-seven coaches lined up from the stadium all the way back to the traffic lights...

"Excuse me, you haven't seen any Norwich fans around at all, have you?"

"No," they reply, entering into the spirit, "We'll let you know if we do, though...."

It was that kind of day. The only surprise, really, was that we were able to get into the ground to see the game at all, given that the official visiting attendance of four and a half thousand appeared to be doubled or trebled by those who'd begged, stolen or borrowed to acquire a seat in the other parts of the ground. You rather expected there to be room left for a couple of dozen Watford fans, perched high up in a corner of the Rookery and thoroughly incidental to the whole occasion. It must've been a good day for shopping in Norwich...and, indeed, for walking round the city centre in full Ipswich kit and shouting "NORWICH ARE SCUM!" through a megaphone, if you were so inclined.

Frankly, it would've been a right royal pain in the arse if we'd actually needed to get anything from the game, like trying to get on with work while the next door neighbours loudly sing along to "The Greatest Party Hits in the World...EVER!". Following the midweek heroics at Millwall, however, there was a certain innocent charm about the whole day, even if our achievement, much less likely to grab headlines but no less vital in its own way, was rather dwarfed. I would say that the weather - bright, hot sunshine, full of the promise of summer - did its bit to help, except that the pollen count sent my body into an emergency shut down and meant that merely staying vertical for the afternoon was achievement enough.

It's easy to be cynical, of course. The standard line from anyone near enough to see, let alone aim for, the Premiership - that Charlton are the model to follow - tends to ignore the obvious, namely that it's always Charlton because no-one can really think of any other examples. (Not since "Charlton and Ipswich" became redundant, anyway. It speaks volumes that no-one can afford to want to be Bolton any more.) Naturally, we'll be seeing Norwich again before very long, and next season will be a long, hard and potentially depressing one for them - we know only too well that taking the money in exchange for taking a weekly pasting is much easier in theory than in practice.

Does any of that really matter right now, though? No, of course not. The day that promotion after a ten year wait isn't greeted by the mother of all parties - complete with souvenir tat, stupid amounts of beer, and blind optimism for the future - is surely the day that we should all go and do something more constructive with our Saturday afternoons. It wasn't so very long ago that we were in (more or less) this position ourselves, not so long ago that we should've forgotten the sheer joy of it all, nor the loyal, stubborn and absolutely justified refusal to listen to good sense. On the evidence of the early adoption of "Premier League? We're having a laugh!" as an anthem by some Norwich fans, they're quite well prepared for what's to come. Good luck to them, I say.

So, this was someone else's day. Appropriately, it was largely someone else's game too...which isn't to say that we were massively outclassed, merely that only the last ten or fifteen minutes suggested that the result wasn't an inevitability. A bit of a disappointment, then, for it would've been lovely to have kept this little run going, building up some proper momentum at last. In the end, we'll just have to be content with the knowledge that this could really have mattered, and hurt.

If one passage summed up the first half, it was towards its conclusion. Then, Norwich spent two or three minutes in possession, shuffling the ball around in neat triangles and generally making our pitch appear rather less treacherous than we have...although, to be fair, it actually did seem a bit flatter and greener with the benefit of some showers and sunshine. The visiting thousands cheered each pass, the rest became more agitated as we failed to get a tackle in. But at no point did the ball enter the final third...and when it finally did, the linesman's flag intervened immediately. That was the story, in essence, for Norwich looked decent, classy, dangerous...but "looked" rather than "were", in the main.

There was just one exception. On twenty-eight minutes, Cooper received a pass in a central position, poked a neat ball into the lively-but-marshalled McKenzie on the left of the area, and our defence was pulled out of shape for once, allowing Francis to compose himself before sliding an accurate finish into the far corner. A quality goal, far removed from most that we've contrived to concede this season - you know, the ones where a defender slices the ball into his own chin, then someone else trips over a divot before a striker scores from half a yard - and almost worthy of applause. Almost. Whatever, some reassurance that the division's about to be won by a team worthy of the title - Stoke don't score goals like that, after all. Neither do we, for that matter.

And neither did Norwich, otherwise. Indeed, there was some frustration at the timing of the goal, for we'd begun to enjoy rather more of the play in the preceding minutes, and Lee Cook's sublime curved pass to Hameur Bouazza just a minute before had been the short-lived highlight of the game. We hadn't created nearly enough - or anything, in fact, apart from an early Bouazza half-volley that bounced comfortably wide - but we weren't exactly finding ourselves stretched at the back either, and the ability of Sean Dyche and Marcus Gayle to cope with the Norwich strikers was cause for encouragement. A turn and inaccurate shot from McKenzie and a deflected Drury effort had both failed to bother Alec Chamberlain, in a half that was not exactly packed with goalmouth incident.

It continued in the same vein after the goal, pretty much. An attractive enough game to watch, certainly...but one that rarely sparked with genuine aggression or ambition. Indeed, the outstanding moment for Watford fans came from Bruce Dyer, whose purposeful turn in midfield was followed by a great surge towards the penalty area and a drive that swung just away from the target. Although Micah Hyde scuffed a shot to Green shortly afterwards, there wasn't nearly enough of that shameless, fierce determination, and too much that was merely adequate and acceptable. It was all right, then. But we can do better...and so, we assume, can Norwich.

Again, it was Bruce Dyer's re-discovered confidence that set the second half in motion, with a lovely touch in midfield and a careful pass out to Paul Devlin and a well-struck drive at Green to complete the move. That, really, was absolutely typical of his afternoon, for he only conceded possession in striking at goal...and he struck at goal with considerably more regularity than anyone else. A strong, solid, dependable performance, with a little bit of the sparkle that we remember from ten years ago and the crucial addition of sharp, lively movement in and around the penalty area. You know, Bruce Dyer. You remember him, right?

Unfortunately, we were further behind immediately. Alec Chamberlain has made better decisions than the one which saw him well outside the left of the box with a glove on the ball...and Mr M Fletcher has made harsher decisions than the one which saw him allow the keeper to continue without so much as a word of admonishment. It's a bloody stupid rule, that one...but it was bizarre to see it so brazenly ignored by an official. That said, the punishment arrived quickly enough, as some part of McKenzie's anatomy managed to lift the ball over a distracted Chamberlain at the resulting free kick. All in all, much more like the kind of goal that we've become used to conceding....

We seem to have got out of the habit of accepting defeat, though. It took a little while to recover our composure, and we were undoubtedly helped by some slacking from Norwich, but the remainder of the game saw an unlikely comeback slowly gather momentum. By the end, regardless of what we might or might not have deserved, we were genuinely unfortunate not to have succeeded. A shame, perhaps, that we couldn't have been so bright and assertive earlier...but then, we probably needed our visitors to relax their grip slightly first.

There might've been glory here. For Sean Dyche - Alec Chamberlain aside, the player least likely to score from thirty yards - whose tremendous drive from precisely that distance clipped the top of the crossbar after sixty-one minutes. For Bruce Dyer, whose desperate stretch to meet Scott Fitzgerald's low cross so nearly brought the late equaliser, just inches away as the ball reared up, hit the inside of the post, and rebounded to safety. Rather unlucky not to have scored five in three games, our Bruce. For Dominic Blizzard, whose industrious debut in midfield was crowned by a bright, perceptive header to deflect Paul Devlin's drifting half-volley away from the keeper and into the far corner, to give the game its dramatic finale. For all of them, even if the overall team performance lacked a certain something.

It wasn't to be, and so there are one or two more ifs to add to the very long list that we've managed to accumulate over the course of the season. That said, a few of those ifs went in our favour too, as the search for the equaliser left us increasingly exposed to Huckerby's pace on the break...and increasingly grateful for his characteristic profligacy too, as he slashed one shot wide after roaring past Sean Dyche and then allowed Alec Chamberlain to claim the ball from his feet three minutes later. Francis bounced a half-volley narrowly wide as we struggled to find a way to express our urgency and were frustrated in particular by Green's positive goalkeeping, coming to claim decisively whenever we slung in high crosses. Like I say, we were genuinely unfortunate. But at the same time, we don't have too much to complain about.

The match ended with Iwan Roberts, on as a very late substitute, scooping a hapless, clumsy effort into Alec Chamberlain's hands while falling over his own feet. See, it ain't all glamour. And then we left the good folk of Norfolk - all thirty thousand of them - to delirious celebrations with their team, singing their hearts out in the late afternoon sunshine. Remember that playoff clincher against Grimsby in 1999? Remember how bloody marvellous that felt, genuine achievement mixed with buzzing anticipation?

Reality will hit home soon enough, obviously. It hit us too, in the end. But if football was just about reality, none of us would bother....