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Nationwide Division One, 10/3/01
Norwich City
Controlling our own destiny
By Ian Grant

Wherever you look, smiles as wide as the margin of victory. Which was very wide indeed.

The origins of this, surely our most stylish and impressive ninety minutes of the season, obviously lie in that thunderous last twenty minutes on Wednesday night. Then, the players finally seized control of their own destiny. For so long, it appears that they've been waiting for their manager's fabled magic to start working, for their Tranmere to come along, for their turn to enjoy glory. The point is, of course, that our past achievements have not been built upon players who've waited for anything....

So, a chance given to the line-up that ended the game against QPR by battering the living daylights out of them. A keen sense of anticipation before kickoff. An early setback, followed by four quite wonderful goals that might easily have been joined by four more.

No, Norwich weren't up to much...but neither were Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Portsmouth, Stockport, and the rest. We, on the other hand, were up to a lot. A nightmare to play against, particularly if you had the misfortune to be anywhere on the left side of the Norwich defence, and an absolute joy to support.

From the moment when Nordin Wooter darted through to score what will undoubtedly be the goal of the season, everything clicked in spectacular fashion. The sun came out, the smiles returned, and even an injury to the sensational Dutchman didn't throw us out of our stride. Although City held out for an hour before going behind, anything but a sizeable Watford victory would've been an extraordinary injustice. We stuffed 'em.

There was enough goalmouth incident for two match reports, and not a great deal of it troubled Espen Baardsen. That said, our hopes for a continuation from Wednesday took an immediate kicking, courtesy of a bright Norwich start that was crowned by Forbes sneaking in front of Neil Cox to meet Nedergaard's cross and head his side into the lead after six minutes. We were still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, trying to work out if that thing about being good again was only a dream.

There were a number of pivotal moments here, all of which turned in our favour. That is, we turned them in our favour. Norwich weren't the first team to take an early lead in a game against us. But they were the first to be met with such a ferocious response. It would've been easy to slide back into depression, to let the positives from Wednesday disappear along with yet more points.

But we didn't let it happen. Within seconds of the restart, Tommy Mooney nearly provided the equaliser with a belting drive from the right of the area, which would've stung Marshall's palms as he pushed it over the bar. We didn't have to wait long, though.

In truth, Nordin Wooter's goal wasn't what we were waiting for at all. We were waiting for a bus to get us from A to B, when a stretch limo pulled up. This was a goal - and an individual performance, albeit tragically short - that matched up to the memories of the finest wingers that Watford Football Club has ever seen.

He received the ball out on the right. He has received the ball out on the right countless times in his eighteen month spell at Watford. We roared him on as he darted forward to take on the nearest opponent. Again, nothing new. He beat that opponent and he accelerated towards the box, bursting between two more defenders and over the white line. Here, he did something unprecedented. He finished it off, sliding a precise, low shot inside the far post. It was an exhibition goal, scored at a time when any goal would've done.

The afternoon rapidly became a contest between Nordin Wooter and anyone who fancied trying to tackle him. Not much of a contest, in all honesty, since none of those who attempted to dispossess him came close to success. At times, he'd gain possession when surrounded by two or three white shirted opponents, yet still find a way to emerge from the crowd with the ball at his feet and career away on some mission. It was a performance from another era, a welcome flashback to past glories.

The scores were still level at half-time. Heaven only knows how, though. Apart from a couple of off-target shots from Russell and a late header over from Nedergaard, the goal attempts all came at the Vicarage Road end. Our dominance grew with our confidence.

It became a matter of whether we'd take the lead before we peaked. This season's second half performances haven't been notable for their brilliance, after all. As Andy Marshall repeatedly denied us with superb saves, you began to wonder if we'd be able to sustain our superiority for long enough to make the breakthrough. In the end, we did more than sustain it.

So, just three minutes after Wooter's equaliser, Neil Cox swung a free kick around the wall and our assault on the Norwich goal began. On that occasion, Marshall did extremely well to shove the ball around the post with both hands before it beat him. Shortly afterwards, fine approach play followed a soaring Cox cross-field pass and Mooney stretched and sliced narrowly wide after Tommy Smith was apparently clattered inside the area. When a free kick was awarded for obstruction on Smith, Paul Robinson shot over from the edge of the box.

The first twenty minutes was always going to be vital on Saturday. We finished it with the wind in our sails and with Nordin Wooter attempting to out-do himself - controlling, turning, shooting with his left foot from thirty yards, missing by mere inches. He was enjoying himself, clearly.

Mind you, he wasn't the only one. The pass from Cox to Wooter after thirty-one minutes, for example, was made to gasps of wonder from the stands. Its perfectly-plotted trajectory over fifty yards - just another long ball, then - removed the left flank of the Norwich team from the equation altogether, sending Wooter away yet again. The cross picked out Mooney, waiting to stuff yet another far post header into the back of the net. The only way that Lee Marshall could intervene was by attempting to volley the ball spectacularly past his own keeper, which he would've done if his own keeper hadn't made a quite stunning save. This time, one trusts that he would've run to his own supporters. Even then, the Norwich goalie had to make an equally stunning second save to block Mooney's follow-up volley.

Impressively, we stuck at it. Aside from those nervous minutes at the start, our level of performance was far more consistent than at any time since the season's early games. Even as Norwich denied us, we found new ways of attacking, until they could deny us no more. Thirty-three minutes, Paolo Vernazza's low drive takes a deflection and Marshall gets in the way again, adjusting his dive to block with his legs. Forty minutes, Clint Easton has a shot with his right foot and nearly scores from twenty-five yards.

We could've had ten here. They would all have been worthy of a place on the mantelpiece.

The next pivotal moment? Well, that was the injury to Nordin Wooter's ankle. Having entertained us as no Watford player has entertained us for years, it was absolutely heartbreaking to see him hobble painfully out of the game before half-time. Good cause for feeling sorry for ourselves, for cursing our luck, for letting our heads go down. Also good cause for proving that we're not a one-man band, for stuffing Norwich regardless. Again, we made the choice.

The second half was ridiculous, fabulous, bloody superb. Those left-sided Norwich players, no doubt sighing with relief when Wooter departed, soon discovered that their lives weren't going to be any easier with Tommy Smith hurtling at them for the remaining forty-five minutes. Between the sticks, Andy Marshall flung himself around to prevent us from piling up a humiliating total but was entirely powerless to prevent three splendid goals. We were rampant, playing with an extra bounce in every stride, an extra ping in every pass.

It took fifteen minutes to establish a lead. In that time, Marshall parried Allan Nielsen's fizzing half-volley at his near post. Heidar Helguson ran onto Mooney's neat through-ball and saw his finish deflected wide by a defender's leg. Nielsen stretched to meet an awkwardly bouncing ball that had flicked off a defender's head, failing to make a clean enough contact to steer the shot on target. Nielsen again, with a shot at the keeper from twenty yards. (So much more involved, our record signing - a beating heart needs a body, I guess.) Forbes' head got in the way of a Cox drive that appeared destined to swerve spectacularly into the top corner.

The most impressive thing? The pace that we were playing at. Neither the terrible, bumbling crawl of recent disappointments, nor the frantic bombardment of the last twenty minutes at QPR. Somewhere in between, something that only comes from a team that knows that it's going to win if it carries on in the same way. Patient enough to avoid panic, urgent enough to avoid complacency.

We sustained that pace for eighty-five minutes, which is quite astonishing. Whether fighting for an equaliser, searching for a winner, or merely securing the points, the only variation was that we became even more fluent and fabulous as time passed. Even so, when Tommy Smith pounced on a fortunate rebound from the referee, allowed Mooney's decoy run to create some space around the edge of the area, and gave us the lead with a perfect shot that brushed Marshall's fingertips on the way through, the relief around the place was tangible. This time, we weren't going to be frustrated or disappointed.

Briefly, Norwich emerged to pass the ball around in our half. This was as close as they got to sustained attacking after the interval. It would be easy to under-estimate them on this evidence, to forget that they caused all kinds of problems at Carrow Road, particularly from crosses. It would be equally easy to ignore the fact that James Panayi was playing against Iwan Roberts, a big, ugly, awkward centre forward - the amazingly assured nature of the youngster's display shouldn't be allowed to hide the difficulty of his task. He was commanding and composed throughout, a defender in full control of every situation, a real revelation.

It took us five minutes to carve the Norwich defence wide open again, a mass of bodies converging to suffocate Tommy Smith on the right and forgetting to keep an eye on Tommy Mooney in the middle. That's what happens when a backline is given so many problems to deal with. When the ball was played across, Mooney tried and failed to out-pace his opponents, ending with a sliced shot from the edge of the box.

Shortly afterwards, Mooney's cheeky pass through a defender's legs gave Helguson another opening. He rounded Marshall but couldn't get enough power on the finish as he fell, so that it rolled slowly towards the line before being cleared away by a defender. We were rampant, lethal. The third was, in its own way, the best so far. Smith showed his tenacious side in winning a tackle and his magical side in taking the ball away with a delicate flick of his toe. Again, the defenders, so wary by now, converged on him as he reached the eighteen yard line. Now, he showed his awareness by sliding the ball into the acres of space on his left for Helguson, who side-footed a simple finish. Just delightful football, so far removed from anything that we've seen in the last three or four months.

There was plenty more. Norwich were chasing shadows, slaughtered by the runs of Smith on one side, exasperated by the consistently intelligent, influential passing of the excellent Easton on the other. Mooney volleyed well wide, then stooped to head just over from Smith's deflected cross. The fourth was our finest moment - appropriately, what had begun with brilliance from an individual concluded with brilliance from the team. Nielsen to Vernazza to Helguson and back to Nielsen, digging the ball out from under his feet and beating Marshall before the keeper had even started to move. Celebrate, smile, pinch yourself to make sure.

In passing, I'll mention that Espen Baardsen had to make a save - well, a catch - from Russell's attempted lob. At the Rookery end, injury time began with Marshall denying us again, keeping Nielsen's well-struck drive out despite being unsighted. When you've scored four and the opposition goalkeeper has been by far their best player, you have every right to enjoy your victory. No controversy here.

Despite the chant, there's no need to play Norwich every week. They made no significant contribution to their own downfall, after all. When we perform like this, it doesn't matter who we play.

As Graham Taylor kept the players on the pitch for a moment longer than usual at the end, it felt like an emotional watershed. It felt like my whole body had been lightened and lifted. It felt familiar, but no less wonderful for that. Sometimes, watching football is a bloody miserable experience. Sometimes - quite often, if you've been a Watford fan while GT's been in charge - your team plays their socks off for your benefit and watching football is the most joyous pastime in the world. So bloody happy. So bloody happy.

Burnley, then. Come on.