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Nationwide League Division 1, 29/12/98
Norwich City 1(0)
Scorers: Roberts (54)
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 3, Bazeley 4, Kennedy 3, *Page 5*, Palmer 5, Iroha 4, Smart 2, Hyde 4, Noel-Williams 4, Johnson 4, Gudmundsson 2
Subs: Mooney (for Gudmundsson) 4, Rosenthal (for Smart) 4, Robinson (for Noel-Williams) 0
Scorers: Palmer (81)
Strange times
Report by Matt Rowson

Norwich is a strange place to watch football. Things are just a bit different. Stewards, for example, guaranteed to provide an at best surly welcome to the visiting hordes, are friendly and courteous at Carrow Road. Three years ago one of them put a bet on for me at the Ladbrokes on the other side of Carrow Road (which came in at 50-1 !) and chatted for ten minutes about what they'd like to do to Robert Chase...this time, no such luck with the betting but nonetheless an apologetic "Yes, sorry mate, it's sold out so if you don't mind..." when I asked whether allocated seats held. Maybe I'm just getting old but these things make a DIFFERENCE.

As do the facilities...and the away end at Norwich makes the Vicarage Road end seem positively spacious. A congested rabbit warren with insufficient provision of pretty much everything, heaven help them in the event of a bomb scare. I nearly trampled a couple of young kids underfoot just queuing for a pastie.

The pre-match entertainment was also a bit bizarre, culminating in some poor sod in an inflatable Father Christmas suit ("Perry Digweed" - my brother) jigging past us followed by what looked like a malfunctioning relative of C3P0.

So when the football started, perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised at being served up something a bit unusual. Truly unusual, of course, in the terms of this Watford team would have been a gutless, unimaginative display...not the case, thankfully. No, what we witnessed this evening surpassed even the games against Ipswich and Bolton in terms of two excellent teams tearing into each other.

From my vantage point at the front of the stand, the first half was dominated by a duel between Ben Iroha and City winger Neil Adams. Iroha looks like an excellent acquisition already... pacy, confident and imaginative, and with an absolute corker of a throw-in. There are, however, definitely shades of Keith Dublin about never know quite what's going to happen next (cf. His first touch at Vicarage Road on Saturday), and on this particular occasion he seemed determined to get himself sent-off. Iroha was a marked man from early on...his first (clean) challenge with Adams resulted in both players being grounded, and Iroha aimed a kick at Adams' head. This understandably riled the winger, who spent the remainder of the game trying to get Iroha dismissed...that he failed is some measure of Iroha's ability to keep his cool. That Iroha put in a fine performance despite the attention he was getting is some measure of our new signing's single-mindedness. Kicks to the head aside, there's a new hero in the ranks.

The first half was won by City in terms of possession, but without the guile of Bellamy there was very little in the way of serious threat to the Watford goalmouth. Eadie hared at the defence at terrifying speed, but from early on was being shepherded wide to place largely harmless crosses into the arms of Chamberlain. Roberts, meanwhile, was getting no change at all out of Palmer, and upped the decibels of his critics in the visiting stand by dumping his marker on the floor in the centre circle in frustration.

At the other end, more strange goings on. A feature of the Hornets' play this season has been the number of times Allan Smart gives the ball away. Not very often. However today, nothing was quite working for him... the industry was still there, but the thrusting passes were running into touch.

Watford were still dangerous on the break, though, largely thanks to another colossal performance from Gifton, but too many balls were being punted up towards the strikers, who were quickly engulfed in a sea of huge defenders. That was pretty much the story of the first half...two teams desperate to attack, but without the guile to break down two resolute defences. Towards the end of the half, the cracks began to show... Gifton had a goal disallowed, and then an apparently aimless Norwich attack found Llewellyn free at the far post. He should have scored, but his header beat Chamberlain only to be cleared by Johnson, as ever in the right place at the right time.

I've said that much was unpredictable... this, sadly, cannot be said of the singing. A huge travelling support made a complete racket for much of the game, but I can't have been alone in spotting the idiocy of two sets of fans bellowing "Stand up if you hate the scum". Norwich, almost thankfully, outstupided their visitors with a brief chorus covering our chairman's sexuality and manager's resemblance to a certain vegetable. The only thing that astonishes me is that every bugger thinks they're so damn witty and original....

The game was changed completely by two crucial substitutions, at least one and arguably both of which only GT would have pulled off. More than a few eyebrows were raised when Mooney appeared on the right side of midfield at the start of the second half, but we shouldn't have doubted the great man. Fugelstad, the Norwegian left-back, had had a fine first half abetted by a fitful display from the substituted Gudmundsson... but he was in for a nightmare of a 45 minutes. Just as Samuel Jackson or Jim Carrey manipulate every role to their own particular style, so Mooney took to his new position like a raging pit-bull. He announced his arrival by bundling through the hapless Fugelstad on the edge of the area to beat the keeper with a shot which crashed off the upright from a tight angle.

This injected a new sense of purpose into our attacking play, but also woke the game up and chances began to appear at both ends. Taking the new-found wind temporarily out of our sails (and completely silencing the away fans), City went ahead...Roberts finally getting the better of Palmer and turning in what from our admittedly less than ideal angle looked like an untidy goal. "Watford reject", sang the Norwich fans, in mockery of our earlier observation.

For a while, City were flowing, the crowd were behind them, and we had our backs to the wall. In this period the defence was outstanding. Palmer, forever defying logic and outpacing ostensibly quicker opponents, looks more like the great John McClelland in every game. Page was back to his awesome best...reading the game brilliantly, and making immaculate tackles when Eadie or Llewellyn hurtled at him and precision was really needed. He even made a couple of great sweeping passes. No, really, he did ! Johnno and Micah were very involved, working hard, and Mooney was making a big difference up front, but there was still too much distance between the midfield and the forwards.

Then, the substitution which changed the game completely. Rosenthal on, the disappointing Smart off. Instantly, we had mobility and fiendish ingenuity up front. Whether or not Ronnie's resurgence is in any way influenced by the F.A.Cup 3rd Round draw, he made all the difference in this game, and the screw was quickly and visibly turned.

Growing in confidence again after the earlier setback, Watford pushed forward. Norwich's attacks were restricted by a well-orchestrated offside trap, and Mooney and Kennedy pushed up as wingers with Iroha and Bazeley in willing support. Ronnie was cropping up all over the place... coming back looking for the ball, spreading and organising the play and keeping everyone moving. Norwich's defence, organised by Jackson but dominated by the huge Mackay was suddenly reeling and we began to boss the midfield for the first time. The chances soon came.

A gorgeous free kick from the left by Hyde after Gifton had been pulled back evaded everyone except the Mooney whirlwind which arrived at the far post and somehow contrived to put the ball wide. Gifton steamed into the box from the right and melted the ball narrowly across the face of goal. The marauding Bazeley cut to the edge of the box before shooting wide. At the other end, Grant punted into the stand from a similar position, but Norwich had lost their composure for the first time, and were almost out of it.

The goal, inevitably, came from a move down the right. Fugelstad, now exhausted, slid in on Bazeley and missed the ball, blocking the full-back's run. The linesman, who'd been receiving some sound advice from the Watford crowd behind him, flagged decisively for a free kick to the evident if inexplicable disappointment of the home crowd. The ball was swung into the box and eventually bundled out to the edge of the area where Steve Palmer crashed home a low hard drive. Roles reversed, the home crowd silent, and "Ipswich reject" and "One Stevie Palmer" echoed around Carrow Road.

Still Watford screamed forward, and Ronnie was again involved in everything, once foraging in midfield, then spinning on a sixpence on the edge of the box to fire a low shot straight at Watt. Mooney appeared on the left and powered into the area before crashing a shot into Watt's relieved if bruised shins... the keeper knew nothing about it. In this period Watford could, and perhaps should, have won the game.

But maybe it doesn't pay to get too greedy. I've said this was a strange evening, I've not yet mentioned the strangest phenomenon of all.

My abiding memory of the first game at Vicarage Road was Gifton being hauled around by Malky Mackay and receiving no protection whatsoever from the officials. Tonight, the referee was Mr.Clive Wilkes, not generally a popular man in Hertfordshire... and he was brilliant ! Yes, he booked at least six players (Smart, Iroha, Johnson, Page, Roberts and Eadie), but each one was justified, and Iroha could have walked. Instead, the ref diffused the early incident by getting the players to shake several minutes later without getting his card out. He let the game flow in general, and wasn't influenced by either set of fans. Crucially, he was wise to the most surreptitious of antics from both sides, and Ronnie quickly realised that he wasn't going to win anything he didn't deserve. And Gifton got his protection.

Norwich won a corner, having rallied at the very end of the game. Mackay came crashing into the box to power home, leading with his elbow. We sunk into our seats. Except no... the ref had seen it. The goal could easily have stood, but it was a clear foul. Well done Mr.Wilkes, whatever the whinging Norfolk hordes muttered into their scarves after the game.

So a fine performance, maybe the best thirty minutes of the season, and a fine refereeing display to boot.

Strange times indeed....

See also: Norwich unofficial