Defence against the drop

August 18, 2004
By Steve Wilson

'That's the big one out of the way,' remarked Norwich City manager Nigel Worthington after watching his side take an opening-day point against fellow Premiership new boys Crystal Palace last weekend.

With trips to Old Trafford and St James' Park up next for the Canaries, followed by a return to Carrow Road to face champions Arsenal, it is perhaps surprising his words were even audible, so embedded into the Irishman's cheek was his tongue at the time.

But, despite the affable coach seeing the funny side of his charges taking a merited Premiership bow in a match with a decidedly First Division feel, he may have been on to something.

For the two teams' season - along with that of West Bromwich Albion - will surely be defined more by results against less glamorous opposition than that which awaits them in the coming weeks. Many a true word, after all, is spoken in jest.

Both Norwich and Palace are widely tipped to make a swift return from whence they came and this early meeting provided both with the opportunity of a moral boosting three points against likely peers come May. Neither took it and, as the two teams laboured slightly beneath the Norfolk sun, it was hard to envisage anything other than a season long struggle ahead.

The football on offer was honest, bright and, occasionally, slick but, for all the endeavour on display, moments of genuine quality were few and far between. Both managers, however, took solace in the performances of their star men, upon whose shoulders a great deal of expectation weights heavy.

Goals win games. And if any, or indeed all, of the newly promoted sides are to beat the drop, winning games is what they will have to do. The capacity crowd were treated to two fantastic strikes and, in Darren Huckerby and Andy Johnson, the Norwich boss and his counterpart Iain Dowie clearly believe they have the personnel to make a mockery of their billing as relegation certainties.

Huckerby repeatedly demonstrated his lightning pace and, latching on to an astute pass from strike partner Mathias Svensson, also proved his strength and shooting prowess: easily out-muscling Mark Hudson before emphatically beating Julian Speroni in the Palace goal from 15 yards.

Huckerby, of course, has been here before, showing promise and scoring some spectacular goals in spells with Coventry City and Leeds United. Yet doubts remain over his ability to consistently shine at this level. Though not, it would seem, it the mind of his manager.

GettyImages / ChristopherLeeAndy Johnson and Thomas Helveg in action in Saturday's six-pointer.

'I've got no doubts about him in the Premiership,' said Worthington, who was fulsome in his praise for the man Norwich owner Delia Smith broke the bank to sign at the tail end of last season after a successful loan spell at the club.

'A lot of people have, but he showed today that he can do it. I don't think he has any doubts that he can and if he does I'll squash those very quickly.'

Dowie too had reason for optimism after watching Johnson open his account for the season with a classy finish. A wonderful jinking run from Wayne Routledge, followed by a cute pass behind the Norwich back line put Johnson in on goal and he showed a real striker's instinct to wrongfoot Robert Green and slot home a deserved equaliser.

After finishing top of the scoring charts in the first division last season with 28, the prolific striker will be a handful for any Premiership defence; an opinion ratified by his boss.

'He's a talented boy,' said Dowie after the game. 'He makes bright runs and if you do that and work hard then you'll score goals.'

The summer saw the arrival of Hungarian international forward Sandor Torghelle, principally to act as a foil for the more direct Johnson but with a proven scoring record at domestic and international level. If the pair can gel quickly then goals should not be a problem for Palace.

Fellow Premiership new boys West Brom were also busy in the transfer market during the break and seem to have pulled off something of a coup in securing the signature of Arsenal's Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu. On their last visit to the big time the Baggies took a pragmatic approach to the season and sought to rely on hard work and organisation rather than getting in big money stars; mindful of the consequences of such a policy at places like Bradford City.

Despite fighting valiantly to the death this approach ultimately failed and this time around the purse strings have been loosened at little at the Hawthorns with six other new faces joining along with Kanu. How quickly these fresh arrivals get used to playing in the same team will go a long way to deciding West Brom's fate.

Against Blackburn they looked anything but cannon fodder as Kanu turned in a man-of-the-match performance full of tricks and neat touches. Only a late header from Craig Short denied Albion all three points and Megson was in no doubt as to the Nigerian's contribution.

'I thought he was terrific,' said the Baggies boss, 'and to have that kind of quality at my disposal is amazing. He may look languid on the ball at times and laidback, but he doesn't give it away and we have to learn to play with him.'

None more so than strike partner Geoff Horsfield. The former bricklayer's style is poles apart from the rangy fluidity of Kanu and on Saturday his more traditionally robust English game, based on power and strength, caused as many problems for the Blackburn defence as his team-mate. This curiously mismatched duo complemented each other to good effect and Megson will be hoping for more of the same as the season progresses.

So all three of the promoted sides have reason to believe that they posses the firepower to make a fist of Premiership survival and the evidence of the opening round of matches will have done nothing to shake that belief.

But an examination of the for and against columns at the wrong end of Premierships past suggest that this ability to find the net may still not be enough to save them from the dreaded drop.

Darren Huckerby
GettyImages / GaryMPriorHuckerby: Targets ex-teammate.

True, over the last eight seasons the team that has registered the fewest goals has finished bottom of the league on all but a single occasion: in the 2001/02 season when Sunderland actually avoided relegation despite having the worst record in front of goal.

But, over the same period the team that finished in the holy grail position of 17th – the minimum target for Norwich, Palace and West Brom – in seven out of the eight seasons were outgunned by the side that ended up one place below them.

To put it simply, history suggests that Premiership survival owes more to repelling the opposition than it does to scoring goals.

The three newcomers may have cause for optimism based on the form of their front men but, with the transfer window soon to swing shut until the New Year, they should perhaps be looking to bolster defences that are sure to be overworked this year.

Perhaps defence, as Jose Mourinho will testify after his maiden Chelsea victory came through a Sunday stifling of Manchester United, is the best form of attack.


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