Monday, April 25, 2005
Keeping up appearances
It has become a relegation dogfight defined by tales of the unexpected. Crystal Palace's Andrew Johnson has belied his status as a Premiership novice with a dedicated pursuit of Thierry Henry in the goalscoring charts. At Southampton, Peter Crouch has progressed from figure of fun to talisman. Bottom at Christmas, West Bromwich Albion's resurgence could earn them safety (and force many to revise their opinions of Bryan Robson). And perhaps the most unlikely of all, Norwich City could survive.
For managers wishing to cultivate a siege mentality, it is standard practice to claim their team has been 'written off'. In Norwich's case, it is true but Nigel Worthington, displaying no bitterness at the negative predictions, has shown remarkable consistency in his post-match interviews.
'The belief and quality is there and although there are no easy victories in the Premiership, we'll battle right to the end.' That followed a 1-1 draw at Manchester City in November but was an entirely typical comment from the Ulsterman, so constant has been his message.
We had been warned. With 20 points from 31 games, Norwich looked certainties for a swift return to the Championship. With 10 points from four games, they are now the form team at the foot of the table.
And the virtues Worthington believes his side possess - character, spirit and persistence - have been in evidence in their April uprising. Two late goals in four days - from Dean Ashton against Newcastle and then Mathias Svensson versus Charlton - have earned victories.
A deserved 2-0 win over Manchester United kick-started the Norwich revival, before a frenetic 3-3 draw - notable for six Crystal Palace appeals for a penalty - at Selhurst Park. As well as giving Norwich hope, it is a sequence of fine results that has almost consigned 'Deliagate' to history, though at least one national newspaper journalist still makes a point of referring to Carrow Road as Letsby Avenue.
It created rather less of a furore among Norwich fans. But for outsiders it was the most dramatic moment of their season, because Worthington has conducted a campaign admirably devoid of rancour, only briefly courting controversy by deriding Blackburn's physical approach.
Not that Norwich are archetypal relegation strugglers. Their disciplinary record is excellent while their commitment to passing contradicts the notion teams 'scrap' for survival. But a fundamental civility masks an improvement in recent weeks.
The inclusion of untried centre back Jason Shackell has been a key factor. Norwich have been guilty of defensive naivety, conceding more goals than any other side. Simon Charlton's lack of height was a hindrance, as was Gary Doherty's lack of composure. But the introduction of Shackell and Dean Ashton at either end of the pitch has given Norwich an aerial presence.
And Ashton has also contributed six goals in 13 games. The England Under-21 forward is a rarity: a player with a decisive impact on two relegation battles in the same season. Crewe have not won in 19 matches since his departure while the strapping striker has added purpose to the Norwich attack.
His partnership with Leon McKenzie has yielded nine goals in the last eight games; the recruit from Peterborough has epitomised Norwich with his never-say-die attitude. Together, they have eased the burden on Darren Huckerby, who seems to have settled on the left flank.
The third significant selection is that of the forceful Youssuf Safri to join the muscular Damien Francis in the centre of midfield. Moments of individual inspiration, like Safri's spectacular strike against Newcastle, could yet be the difference between facing Luton or Liverpool next season.
But Norwich need to win away. Teams from English football's geographical outposts, whether the south coast, the north east or East Anglia, tend to be particularly strong at home and especially fallible on their travels. Norwich, with seven draws and 10 defeats on the road, are no exception. Either side of a Carrow Road clash with Birmingham, they visit Southampton and Fulham.
The former are deflated after a disgraceful derby defeat, the latter may have little to play for. But two away victories may be required if Norwich's spirited revival is not to be too little too late.
It may also necessitate a rewriting of the history books; perhaps the most miraculous escape from relegation in the Premiership came from Joe Royle's Oldham in 1992-3, a side that also included Craig Fleming. They won their last three games to stay up (and send Crystal Palace down).
These could be seen as good omens in Norfolk, but Norwich may need to extend their wonderful vein of form to six wins and a draw in their final seven games to emulate the Latics. That would yield 19 points, one short of their efforts from the first 31 games. And surely it would be the most remarkable twist of all in the battle at the bottom.
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