Better than Jeff Stelling
By Dan York
Norwich away has always been a popular trip with Watford fans. Perhaps it's our decent record at Carrow Road, maybe it's the large contingent of Hornets who have somehow found themselves living in Norfolk, or possibly it's a subconscious attraction to teams that play in yellow. Whatever the reason, and despite inexplicable taunts from the home end of 'You couldn't sell all your tickets' - an unfortunate few who travelled without tickets were left to trudge back to Hertfordshire, or alternatively to head to one of the many fine local hostelries to follow the game in the company of Jeff Stelling. Depending on your point of view, they missed either a fine example of the entertainment on offer in Division 2, or a damning indictment of the standard of defending at this level. Or, quite possibly, both.
Clarke Carlisle returned from suspension to a place on the bench as Betty kept faith with the eleven who had started against Stoke last week. Malky Mackay received a warm welcome on his first appearance at Carrow Road since leaving the Canaries. Norwich were without Dean Ashton, ostensibly to a hamstring injury, and lined up with Peter Thorne up-front in his place, supported by Paul McVeigh on the right and Darren Huckerby on the left.
The game started brightly enough, and Norwich had the first chance when Ben Foster saved well at the foot of the post from a 25 yard drive from Jason Jarrett. At the other end Darius Henderson was already causing problems in the Norwich defence and he battled well to win the ball in the area and lay off a pass off to Chris Eagles whosaw his shot deflected wide. Both of Watford's wide players were seeing plenty of the ball, and Anthony MacNamee sent two long range drives wide of the goal.
The referee began to draw the ire of the travelling Hornets, as a series of soft decisions went the way of the home team. From one of these free-kicks, Dickson Etuhu headed just wide having lost his marker. A let-off for the Hornets' defence, but worrying signs were appearing at the back.
This really was end-to-end stuff, and as half-time approached a goal at one of them seemed inevitable. Matthew Spring nearly got it for Watford, as he sent an absolute scorcher of a half-volley past a stranded Robert Green - and onto the foot of the post. Norwich cleared the rebound, and made the breakthrough at the other end. Paul McVeigh received the ball with his back to goal just outside the box, spun past Mackay and tumbled over. The referee gave the penalty.
Debate raged amongst the travelling support, although protests were kept to a minimum on the pitch. Opinion varied from "I've never seen a more ridiculous decision", from someone who clearly hasn't witnessed Rob Styles in action, to "Of course it was a pen. You clumsy git, Mackay!". My immediate reaction was that although McVeigh made the most of it, Mackay had been beaten and had reached out to grab him. Video evidence from 'The Championship' suggests that contact was made outside the box however, so perhaps we were a little unlucky.
You'd expect a player like McVeigh, all neat footwork and a aversion to tackling, to approach a penalty kick with a feint here, and a stop-start run-up there, sending the keeper the wrong way as he cockily rolls the ball past him. Surprisingly he whacked the ball straight down the middle with more power than would seem possible from his diminutive stature. Had Foster just stood where he was, the ball would have taken his head off - but may have stayed out of the net. He didn't though, and Norwich took the lead.
The four minutes before half-time showed that Watford were not giving this one up without a fight, however, and a MacNamee shot was cleared off the line and behind for a corner. Green spilled the ball after Henderson's head connected with the corner kick, but the Canaries defence managed to scramble it away. Watford continued to press but Norwich survived until the half-time whistle.
Lucky half-time chocolate cake: was left behind in the car, and later became celebratory full-time chocolate cake.
Lucky half-time PA announcement: "A message to those of you in the bar areas: the players are out on the pitch and the game is about to restart."
Carrow Road's PA man had clearly been listening to Betty's half-time team talk, as Watford poured forward from the kick-off. Mahon found Marlon King in space on the right, and King's vicious cross was palmed out by Green to the feet of the unmarked Henderson, who couldn't miss from eight yards out. One each, 46 minutes played, and game on.
Watford pushed on, and King had a goal disallowed for offside. Eagles continued where he had left off in the first half, appearing everywhere and causing the City defence all sorts of trouble, and it was from one of his crosses that Henderson headed just over the bar. Gradually, however, Norwich came back into the game. Lloyd Doyley's pocket, in which Huckerby had spent most of the first half, had suddenly developed gaping holes. Norwich began to pressurise the right-hand side of the Hornets' defence. As Lloyd dithered on the edge of the area, Huckerby took advantage, swept past him and crossed for Thorne who headed home from six yards out. This was a disappointing goal to concede, and Watford's defence - which had performed well against the pacey Norwich attack for the first 40 minutes - was looking decidedly shaky.
Straight back down the other end we went though, and Watford won a free-kick on the left-hand side of the Norwich box when Jurgen Collin misjudged the bounce of the ball and handled. Eagles, Spring and King gathered around the ball as they set up what looked suspiciously like something that had been planned on the training ground. Eagles moved back to give himself a run up, Spring and King stood between the ball and the wall, with their backs to goal. With the confident air of someone who has no time for such nonsense, I muttered to my sister that "this is all going to go horribly wrong". The whistle blew, Spring touched the ball to his left whereupon King spun, took one touch and fired it towards the bottom corner. Green scrambled to save, but the ball rebounded to Henderson again - and once more he couldn't miss. It was 2-2, but with half-an-hour to play it would have taken a brave man to put money on that being the final score.
The action continued at both ends which such regularity that my notes are an incomprehensible jumble of scribbles. From what I can decipher, it seems that hesitant defending allowed both sides further opportunities, and it was Norwich who gradually began to dominate possession. The midfield was stretched, which allowed Etuhu to run fifty yards unchallenged before being forced wide. Some trademark dodgy kicking from Foster led to a couple more scares.
Betty brought on Carlisle for DeMerit, but Carlisle struggled to adapt to the frenetic pace of the game and was caught out twice - we were lucky to escape on both occasions. Huckerby continued to enjoy himself at Lloyd Doyley's expense, and this may have been in Betty's mind when he took off both our wide men and replaced them with Al Bangura and Hameur Bouazza. Bangura immediately busied himself, in that quietly effective way that he does, with snuffing out the threat from the Norwich left, but the substitutions seemed to suggest we were happy to settle for a point. Thorne had a chance in the last five minutes, but his turn and shot in the box was kept out by Foster.
As the board went up to indicate two minutes of injury time, Marlon King did once more what he had been doing all game, and indeed all season. His tenacity won him the ball with his back to goal, wide on the right and midway inside the Norwich half. His exceptionally quick feet - and possibly a bit of good fortune - took him away from two Norwich defenders and into space. King's cross arrived at the feet of Spring, eight yards out, and Spring's neat finish beat a stranded Green.
The delirium in the away end continued until long after the final whistle, and as Betty made his way across the pitch to say thanks he stopped to shake hands with two members of the Carrow Road groundstaff. Either he knew them from his time in Norfolk, or he was grateful for the opportunity to play on a pitch that actually had more grass than mud on it.
A slightly fortunate win perhaps, but a cracking game and further confirmation that our first choice side, minus Ashley Young, really is an attacking force to be reckoned with - the official stats claim that we had an astonishing 17 shots on target. Three wins in a row after an indifferent Christmas - one 'managed', one earned, and one snatched. Perhaps it's time for one that's comprehensive. Crewe have conceded 63 goals so far this season…