FOOTBALL: Francis has dead men walking

Norwich City 3 West Bromwich 2 Fleming 45 Earnshaw 41 Doherty 62 Richardson 49 Francis 85 Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 24,292; Injustice for West Brom as Norwich's remarkable resilience forces Dowie to look over shoulder
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There is life down among the dead men, though West Bromwich Albion may soon have to prepare for a footballing funeral. They were desperately unlucky to lose to Norwich City, the team immediately above them at the bottom of the Premiership, who staged another Carrow Road resurrection to keep their supporters hoping. In the previous home game, City scored three times in the last 12 minutes to draw 4-4 with Middlesbrough; yesterday, twice behind, they won a gripping encounter with Damien Francis's fierce drive five minutes from time. That put them two points ahead of Southampton, who play today, and only two behind Crystal Palace.

Overall, the season has been less depressing for Norwich as a club, still enjoying a first season among the big boys, seeing the best players and visiting the best stadiums. For West Bromwich, in contrast, the novelty wore off in the relegation campaign two years ago, and the hope was that the current season would bring benefits from painfully learnt experience. Bryan Robson has slowly steadied the ship after a traumatic return to his first club and with Kevin Campbell adding a new dimension as a partner to Robert Earnshaw, there had been only one defeat in eight games prior to yesterday.

In keeping with the do-or-die nature of the occasion, the home side went for broke with a 4-3-3 system featuring Darren Huckerby and Leon McKenzie wide in attack on either side of Dean Ashton, the latest product of Dario Gradi's admirable Crewe Alexandra academy. Tall and strong, he has provided a new option for Norwich, despite occasionally looking as green as their shorts.

Albion had the luxury of an extra man in midfield, though the quartet - including the Londoner Kieran Richardson, on loan from Manchester United - were often by-passed by long balls from the back. In a lively first half, those methods proved more effective than Norwich's more subtle approach, producing three nasty moments for the home crowd even before the first goal.

Midway through the half, Darren Purse, the centre-half whose error cost a critical goal at home to Crystal Palace in midweek, suddenly broke forward, taking a clever back-heeled flick from Campbell in his stride but driving wide of the far post. Ten minutes from the interval there was a double let-off for Norwich, who have been complaining of not getting the breaks. They enjoyed one as Earnshaw, fed by Richardson, smacked a shot against the crossbar, and another within 60 seconds, when Jonathan Greening rattled the post after being set up by Zoltan Gera's persistence.

The pressure was increasing and in the 41st minute it finally told. Robert Green, England's third-choice goalkeeper, hit a poor clearance to Greening, 35 yards out; Earnshaw, reacting more quickly than any defender, picked up his pass and raced away to score. An air of resignation descended on the ground, not least because Norwich had previously scored only five times before half-time this season.

But dramatically, and almost comically, there was a sixth in stoppage time, following a corner by the new signing from Charlton, Graham Stuart. Craig Fleming's header, looping towards goal, ought to have provided no problems for Russell Hoult, but under pressure from Francis, he meekly helped it into his own net.

For the second half Huckerby sat deeper, presumably to help prevent Gera pushing forward down the right. He was powerless to prevent Albion regaining the lead within four minutes from a move emanating in that area, but soon created an equaliser as both defences struggled. Norwich allowed Earnshaw through on to Campbell's pass and although Green diverted his chip, Richardson scored at the second attempt, his first having struck the bar from two yards out. Back came the home side, Doherty glancing home Huckerby's cross as three Norwich players queued to meet it at the far post - two of them totally unmarked.

It was all much livelier stuff than the grim goalless draw between the teams on the same ground as they fought for promotion a year ago. Whereas a point each suited both of them on that occasion, it was of less use this time, and the ball continued to ping from end to end. Campbell stole behind the Norwich back line again, to be thwarted by Green, then hooked a shot on the turn too high. In between times, Hoult had to save low down from McKenzie.

Hard as it was on the visitors, they were beaten by Norwich's first scoring opportunity since the equaliser some 23 minutes earlier. Failure to clear convincingly led to Ashton and then Fleming forcing the ball forward and Francis driving it fiercely past Hoult. In the final act, Richardson, who had infuriated the crowd with his goal celebration, hit an acceptable chance wide from 12 yards. Robson, Albion and their supporters looked understandably shattered.

Comments