Oldham Athletic . .0
IF LATER today Norwich City find themselves still within touching distance of Manchester United and Aston Villa, it will be more through the generosity of an own goal by Oldham's Nick Henry than their own efficiency at Carrow Road yesterday.
A capacity crowd and a glorious afternoon deserved something better than a match that once again emphasised the fact that in this Premier League teams chasing the title and those with only safety to pursue are divided more by mathematics than ability.
Even so, there is no avoiding giving Norwich their marks for tenaciously clinging on in the race, while Oldham yesterday showed that with some reinforcement in attack they might have overcome their own ill-luck and improved their worsening chances of avoiding relegation.
Apart from looking after themselves, most of all this weekend Norwich want Manchester United and Villa to punch holes in one another's title hopes. Their ideal scenario was victory yesterday and a draw at Old Trafford this afternoon. The first part came after an untidy struggle of a game and the second is not an unreasonable prediction.
How Norwich had relished seeing United lose to Oldham and Villa do everything but score against Tottenham while their own Ruel Fox was quietly keeping up the pressure by scoring the winning goal for them at Sheffield United. But in this unpredictable season their curious defeat by Queen's Park Rangers last weekend had been infuriating and brought more premature notices of lost hope; understandable at the time since they had eked only five points from six games and injuries were multiplying.
While this is the time when injuries dictate to ambition, Norwich had managed to restore to health their important midfield influence, Ian Crook, and the central defender John Polston. 'Some of the other clubs make such a fuss about their injuries,' Mike Walker, the manager, said. 'But we just get on with it.'
Getting on with beating Oldham posed more problems than they expected. In spite of electing to have only Ian Olney permanently stationed in attack, Oldham still caused the Norwich defence to scramble unimpressively before and after the 13th minute when they suffered the own-goal misfortune that proved so costly.
The goal might never have happened had Henry not made sterling efforts to get in the way of a shot from David Phillips which otherwise would never have ended in the net.
Curiously, confidence did not blossom out of Norwich's advantage. Their midfield and defence continued to make hideous errors and Henry made several determined attempts to compensate for being the unwitting cause of Oldham's problems. David Smith blocked the first of his shots, but the second, from only six yards, was effectively stopped by Brian Gunn, who looked daggers at every so-called friend in sight.
It seemed throughout that Oldham's own worst enemy was their lack of attacking ambition. Often they came out of defence apparently full of optimism, but the home penalty area seemed to be a psychological barrier to their progress which, considering the uncertainty of the Norwich defence, was a pity. Nevertheless Oldham dominated possession over the last 15 minutes of the first half and most of the second.
Norwich resorted to counterattacking in which Fox found himself isolated with insufficient options and Mark Robins was subdued. Yet Oldham still failed to accept their own situation. This, after all, was a game they had to win, but even when they had control in the middle of the pitch, they seldom reinforced their attack.
Roger Palmer's arrival in the place of the industrious Neil Adams, who suffered a hideous, unpunished foul by Smith, added slightly to Oldham's pace upfront, but finally Norwich roused themselves and it was Smith who sparked the small, late revival when Oldham were wilting. His lightly floated centre was one of the game's rare subtleties, but Fox's header drifted over.
Smith persevered, coming back to nip round Mike Milligan. This time Paul Gerrard dived to parry and he did even better to push over a powerful shot, again from Smith. Finally, Robins broke through and his shot was deflected over the bar by Gerrard's hopefully outstretched hand. The hand of fate, though, had already gone against Oldham.
While admitting that it was not a memorable match, Walker said it was a case of the result being more important than the way it was achieved. What you wonder is whether the several hundred people given free seats yesterday came away sold on football even when it came without cost. The cost to the game of so many managers always believing that only the results matter is, of course, incalculable.
Norwich City: B Gunn; I Culverhouse, M Bowen, C Sutton, J Polston, D Smith, I Crook, C Woodthorpe, M Robins (L Power, 89 min), R Fox, D Phillips. Subs not used: J Goss, M Walton (gk). Manager: M Walker.
Oldham Athletic: P Gerrard; G Halle, N Pointon, N Henry, R Jobson, C Fleming, N Adams (R Palmer, 68 min), P Bernard, I Olney, M Milligan, M Brennan. Subs not used: S Redmond, J Keeley (gk). Manager: J Royle.
Referee: R Milford (Bristol).
Goal: Henry og (1-0, 13 min).Reuse content