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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 26/02/02
Norwich City
Like it matters...
By Ian Grant

It doesn't take much for it to matter again.

At seven o'clock, debate is raging in the Estcourt. Whatever his mistakes, I can't help feeling a little sorry for Luca Vialli, who has so far failed to create a team that can speak on his behalf and is therefore in the position of having every word in every sentence in every interview picked apart. Personally, I'm thoroughly bored by it many opinions, so many personalities, so much guff (and I include this guff, of course) where there should be football.

At seven o'clock, I'd have shrugged my shoulders at the thought of a two-one win. Another three points to lift us up to eleventh before an inevitable defeat takes us back to fourteenth, which isn't exactly what we had in mind when Graham Taylor said that we might become a "yo-yo" club. Write about it, forget it, report back on Saturday.

At a quarter to nine, Allan Nielsen darted in from the right wing to collect Tommy Smith's neat pass and steer the ball past Green, doubling the Watford lead and crowning a very fine first half display. Get in. And there, in the Rookery, my fist was clenched hard in celebration and the roar was ripping my throat. And it mattered again.

From nowhere in particular and for no apparent reason, here appeared arguably our most impressive, most effective league performance of the season. It didn't quite match up to that monstrous encounter with Charlton in the Worthington Cup, perhaps...but it was made of the same stuff. In the first half, we were urgent and penetrative; in the second, we were fiercely competitive and stubborn in the face of an attempted Norwich revival. It mattered, because anything less than a victory - our victory, not something distant and vague and impersonal - would've been a complete bloody travesty.

At this late stage, it's hard to believe that we could suddenly get it so right. Not in a relaxed, end-of-season way either. No, this was a hard, punishing game of full-blooded commitment that the weak, tentative, tiresome Watford would've backed away from and lost badly. This time, we were so hungry for it, so eager in the approach and so powerful and so determined in the execution. Norwich, who needed the result more, were simply out-fought over the ninety minutes. Oh, and we played some classy football when the opportunity arose.

Basically, we rose to the challenge as never before. That's both a criticism of previous performances, as even those that've impressed were mostly made to look lightweight last night, and a source of encouragement for the future. Yes, it needs to be repeated more often. Everyone knows that. The point is, however, that regular repetition would turn us into a serious force in the First Division. In short, teams that play like this every week get promoted, without requiring any of the luck that the manager feels has deserted us. Whatever we might've thought, it seems that it's not beyond us.

From the start, we were visibly positive. Any nerves began to fade as Wayne Brown, whose nonsense-free defending has been just as refreshing as the return to form of Neil Cox earlier in the season, muscled his way out of a couple of tight situations with David Nielsen. Notably, Marcus Gayle's prowling presence had an edge about it, while Tommy Smith darted hither and thither in his shadow. Gradually, we began to play football too and found a perfect balance between aggression and finesse, a balance that was to give us a decisive lead by the interval.

After eight minutes, Stephen Glass drifted the ball into the box from deep on the left, looking for the head of Gayle. He found it. The leap was immense, the header cushioned over the flailing arms of the advancing Green. All that remained was for Micah Hyde to tuck the ball into the empty net. By no means the prettiest goal that we've scored this season, yet, in many ways, the differences between the two goals - one basic and direct, the other elaborate and crafted - summed up the variation in our play. For a change, we had more than one idea.

Although Nedergaard floated a free kick over the wall and over the bar shortly afterwards, we went on to dominate almost entirely. In the quality of the crossing, especially from Neil Cox, and the readiness to shoot, our growing confidence found realisation. The marauding Allan Nielsen slashed a shot across goal and wide after a defensive slip; Tommy Smith's header from a fine Gayle cross didn't carry enough power to beat the keeper. And here we were, frightening the opposition sufficiently that the ball nearly ended up in the net from a goalmouth scramble at a corner that didn't seem to involve any yellow shirts at all.

The improvement continued. A couple of snap-shots from Smith - one high and wide, the other at a comfortable height for Green to save - and we'd already far, far exceeded the number of goal attempts from a week before. As a lovely move developed down the right, with one-touch passing finished by a sensational flick from Smith to release Gayle, the more familiar groaning and wailing was replaced by sounds of joyful appreciation. Even when Gayle sent his cross sailing into the Rookery at the end of it all, he was greeted by a disappointed sigh rather than a torrent of abuse.

Amid all this, Norwich had seen plenty of the ball and been able to do virtually nothing with it. Even if various defenders were unable to out-jump Roberts, their diligence in ensuring that the second ball was dispatched to the half-way line without a moment's dallying was commendable. By and large, our opponents got nowhere, hustled out of midfield and bustled away from our penalty area. This time, we weren't messing around. We showed the kind of commitment to the cause that quickly bridges gaps between players and supporters. For me, it took a little less than half an hour.

Around that time, David Nielsen met Fleming's cross from the right and sent a header looping onto the goal stanchion with Alec Chamberlain back-peddling in a slight panic. The luck held long enough for Roberts to be flagged offside after Nielsen had cut in from the left and run dangerously across the face of the defence. A tight decision, I'd guess, but the referee's whistle had already gone when the striker put the ball into the net. Nervous moments.

These were also rare moments, though. Throughout, when the tide threatened to turn against us, our reaction was swift and decisive. This time, the response involved mighty crosses that came crashing into the Norwich penalty area from Neil Cox on the right and then Tommy Smith on the left, and offered Marcus Gayle a headed opportunity that he rather wasted. Still, this was so much better, so much more spirited. Rather than turning up out of habit, you'd spend your week looking forward to seeing us play like this.

The second goal was perfect in all respects. In its conception, splendid passing around the right of midfield with Norwich in forlorn pursuit. In its delivery, a firm header in-field from the increasingly powerful Marcus Gayle, followed by a neat pass through by Tommy Smith. In its finish, Allan Nielsen driving into the area and arcing the ball over and around Green with the outside of his right boot. In its scorer, as Nielsen had been the most outstanding performer of these forty-five minutes, full of energy, intensity and intelligence. And in its timing, obviously. After Roberts had clouted a half-volley over the bar, the whistle blew. The ovation was richly deserved.

Although the hype will centre around the first half performance, what followed was every bit as good. For, as you'd expect, Norwich came out on a bit of a mission...albeit a mission that depended on Clint Easton, given a rather warmer reception than on most of his appearances for Watford. Rather than buckling as so often, the reaction was bullish and belligerent, shutting the visitors out even more effectively than before. The game might've degenerated into a chaotic scrap, full of hacking and wellying and very little football, but we refused to cave in.

Really, there was relatively little goalmouth action. Nevertheless, it was an absorbing contest between those in front and those chasing to catch up. Early on, after Stephen Glass had cut in from the wing and scuffed a shot at Green's near post, three incidents summed up the excellence of the display rather nicely. Each took place in the opposition half, each offered a massive contrast to recent disappointments. There was Tommy Smith thundering into a challenge, and playing the ball off his opponent for a Watford throw to applause from the bench. There was Marcus Gayle, battling so hard to retain possession against a whole heap of challenges and then sweeping a pass across the field to a colleague to applause from every corner of the ground. Finally, Gayle again, turning on the right wing and pushing the ball past his marker to charge onto, unlucky not to catch it before it crossed the goalline. This was stirring stuff. This was what we want.

Norwich did score. Don't be fooled, though. Such was our stubborn refusal to let them pass, it was their only chance of the half. It came from Paul Okon, industrious throughout, losing possession in the centre circle, starting a break that finished with Nedergaard running free on the right and crossing for Nielsen to get ahead of his marker to volley goalwards at the near post. Even then, he was foiled by an outstanding save from Chamberlain, diving to his left to stop the ball with one hand. Unfortunately, it dropped for Roberts, who scored from close range.

How many times have we seen this? How many times have we crumbled under such pressure? Not here, not now. Rather, the response was even more intense, and the tension as the match reached its conclusion was due to the possibility of terrible injustice rather than a sense of impending doom. Defensively, we were absolutely superb, battering the Norwich forwards out of the way whenever the ball came close to the danger area, chasing and hassling all over the pitch. The work-rate was quite phenomenal. Although there was little style, it was a mighty show of strength from a side that has only occasionally suggested that it's capable of such things.

Perhaps we might've sealed it. Twice, substitute Crichton saved from Tommy Smith - once comfortably enough, when Smith had darted in from the wing and shot low; once with rather more desperation, diving down to flick an effort from the edge of the box around the post. Even in injury time, when we ought to have been clinging on, Jamie Hand's wobbling drive woke Crichton up. In the end, it didn't matter. We were so secure, such a brick wall at the back, that Norwich were frustrated and impotent long before the final whistle.

A massive win, then. Not because it has any bearing on the outcome of the season, obviously. Just because it was massive, a performance of intimidating stature and vast presence. Commanding is probably the word that I'm searching for. Norwich are a decent side at this level and they played well enough. They weren't stuffed so much as trampled.

It felt great, a source of pride and passion. It felt like it mattered.

Let this be the start of something. Please.