MATCH REPORT – Norwich 1 City 1

The Championship – Tuesday 12th February 2008

Mentally composing the introduction this match report last night as Norfolk gave way to Lincolnshire and the tentacles of fog enclosed the band of Hull City fans trudging their way home, one angle of attack was to consider our propensity for rescuing games we’ve trailed in. “Yes, that’ll look awfully clever”. Eager to capitalise on this idea, I checked soccerbase, intending a list of such instances this season.

It did not take long to quail at the scale of this task. You think I exaggerate? City scored equalising goals in four of our first five league games. Now, equalising isn’t that uncommon in football, and it’s worth considering that we lost two of those games anyway. But once upon a time, City going behind in a game would have only prompted the question “so how many will we lose by this week?” These days, a more relevant response is “hmm, I hope we’ve given ourselves enough time to grab the winner”. At an engorged Carrow Road – of which more shortly – we didn’t get the winner, which dealt a minor blow to our play-off aspirations. Few minded, as once more on the road the players were feted at the culmination of an absorbing contest.

It is fair to say that Phil Brown’s selection raised a few eyebrows. Much of it was enforced, with a combination of injury, illness and Richard Garcia’s dash to Australia robbing Ben Burgess’ new enemy of many usual choices. Nonetheless, our anticipated XI didn’t quite resemble: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerBrown, Pedersen; France, Ashbee, Walton, Bamby; Okocha; Campbell. Work that out if you can – it appeared to be a peculiar species of 4-4-1-1, with Okocha given the comforting support of four fellow midfielders and thus licence to roam, Barmby given a more rigid assignment on the left.

Norwich, unbeaten in twelve games, made just one change from their side that beat Cardiff 2-1 on Saturday, Keiran Gibbs starting his first game for Glenn Roeder’s resurgent Canaries at the expense of Mo Camara. Darren Huckerby, our tormentor-in-chief a few years, only made the bench. Phew.

Most of the early incident came, sadly, off the pitch. Norwich had announced a complete sell out for the fixture, and had presented City just a small sliver of the Jarrold Stand down one side. Upon arriving, it was immediately apparent that was an extremely tight arrangement, and bovine stewards looked dozily on as the away support attempted to lever itself into this paltry accommodation, before eventually swinging to the other extreme and diving into the displeased City fans with the assistance of the local constabulary. Now, it is fair to say that more away fans travelled than may have been expected for a lengthy Tuesday night journey. It is equally true that Norwich cannot be blamed for wishing to maximise their own fans’ chances of getting in. However, this should NEVER be at the expense of those making a four hour journey for a match advertised as pay on the gate. We must hope that rumours of City fans being unable to get in are true. And we trust that City will be demanding the maximum possible allocation irrespective of anticipated numbers for next season’s trip to Carrow Road to ensure no repeat of this farce.

On to the football. It was a cagey opening to the game, the two teams circling the other warily – the only real chance of the opening fifteen minutes came when the superb Lee Croft sent over a dangerous cross after outpacing Henrik Pedersen, but a presentable heading opportunity was directed well over.

On 19 minutes we trailed, in a dispiritingly basic fashion. A cross from the right; Dion Dublin rose higher than his flatfooted marker – Michael Turner, unusually – and sent a header that looped sickeningly over Myhill and landed softly in the goal.

Norwich play music after a goal. Fadges.

City nearly equalised immediately, a goalmouth scramble right in front us presenting Ashbee and France with chances to level. The goal had livening the game up, and City were indebted to Boaz Myhill to keep the deficit to one with a world-class save after some dithering by Michael Turner presented Croft with a chance – City’s keeper reminded us of the positive aspects to his gave with a magnificent one-handed block.

City were rocking a little now – despite having the better of the possession, the home side looked more menacing with the ball, Lee Croft at the heart of much of this. However, some desperate last-ditch defending prevented Norwich from manufacturing any serious threats on our goal, and when Turner nearly redeemed himself with a booming header from an Okocha corner, it signalled the beginning of a shift in the balance of power.

Increasingly, Okocha, Barmby and Ricketts were exerting their influence, and this saw the Tigers dominate possession as the half progressed. Ian Ashbee stabbed the rebound from a half-cleared corner into the ground, which nearly fell to France, but the ball bounced harmlessly wide.

Heartened, the Tigers continued pressing and the City fans remained in good voice – Bertrand was cautioned after a desperate challenge on Ricketts saw the Welsh international look set to steam in the area with Campbell lurking. Brown fired a header from Okocha’s free-kick narrowly over, a waste as it appeared to be a very good chance to equalise. However, half-time arrived after two extra minutes, with the game finely in the balance.

City started the half in the ascendancy, and the ever-lively Fraizer Campbell nearly equalised after 51 minutes when a hopeful ball from Simon Walton found him ten yards out. He directed a firm header goalwards, but Marshall produced a fabulous save to tip it onto the crossbar and over. Gnnnyaarrgggghhh; how we seethed.

Two minutes later, how we rejoiced.

A ball from the midfield neatly dissected the static Norwich defence, Campbell shrugged off the last-ditch attempt from his marker to intervene and he hit the ball low at Marshall. It seemed the Norwich keeper had successfully got his body in the way, but suddenly we saw from our distant viewpoint that it had squirmed underneath him and into the goal, sparking off delirium among the tightly-packed Tiger Nation.

City were flying at this point, and should have taken the lead when France managed to squirt a shot at Marshall: blocked, just. And now the Tigers were in total control, the 4-4-1-1 concoction of Mr Brown heartily vindicated as Okocha, Barmby, Campbell, Ricketts and Pedersen all skipped merrily about the greensward, at the height of their mesmerising powers. You know that moment when a move is lovingly unfurled that is so gorgeous, you purr with delight and hug yourself in glee? We were treated to several.

Unfortunately our exercise in aesthetics wasn’t actually scoring us any more goals – and while this correspondent, raised upon the gratuitous ugliness of Terry Dolan’s anti-football, is happy to travel large distances to witness its polar opposite, a stern critic may observe that a team seriously pushing for promotion would have put the game away during this period.

Glenn Roeder had attempted to stem the tide, introducing one-time City loanee Jon Otsemobor and Matty Pattison for Bates and Gibbs, and eventually the match tilted back towards equality. Perhaps the catalyst for this rebalancing was an aberration from Myhill, as he scuffed a goalkick onto the uncomprehending skull of Dion Dublin forty yards from goal. A desperate footrace between the two men commenced as the ball bobbled to the City right – fortunately for Myhill’s chances of staying on and/or City remaining level, he won. Just.

Norwich were fighting back strongly now, and Fotheringham smacked a shot from outside the area over the bar by a heart-stoppingly slender margin. As Phil Brown sought to arrest City’s descent into sloppiness, the tiring but generally impressive Nick Barmby was withdrawn via a handshake from referee Hall in favour of Dean Marney. Glenn Roeder countered by taking off Croft (hooray) and introducing Huckerby (bah).

Huckerby was instantly involved, and it appeared Walton had been deployed to assist Pedersen in neutralising this threat. Moments later, Norwich should have led. Myhill brilliantly parried a Russell shot, the rebound effort was blocked, and Russell was next to go – his shot flew wide by a distance that was impossible to discern from our angle, but which seemed horribly close.

Myhill was cautioned for taking too long to take a free-kick, Jay Jay Okocha went off to a terrific ovation for Nicky Featherstone, and both sides seemed to exude a visible satisfaction with a point apiece. Ricketts and France both had half-chances, while Huckerby bustled about with varying effect on the right, but the game petered out slightly and four minutes of injury time were not enough for either side to force a winner, and at full-time the City players marched over the corner of the ground enclosing us and mutual admiration was expressed. Aaaaah.

A satisfying evening, despite its fractionally detrimental effect on our play-off hopes. It’s sometimes instructive to view games not as part of a big picture, but to simply accept the ninety minutes for what it was. In this case, it was a highly entertaining game between two attacking and skilful sides both trying to win the game – the sort of spectacle that justifies the time and expense. A good game, a decent result, a decent atmosphere (from both sets of fans) – from a club that has made an art form of underachievement, that’ll do nicely. We showed character to equalise (yet again) and followed it up with flashes of brilliance. So let’s not worry unduly about the league table. Let’s enjoy the fact we have a very good team to watch, one whose next game can never come too soon. (AD)