Wimbledon . . . .1
THE LOCAL turkeys may not be enjoying the run-up to Christmas but Norwich's Canaries are having the time of their lives. Eight points clear of England's elite, the East Anglians are showing that, under Mike Walker, they have the skill and strength to overcome such diverse teams as Aston Villa and Wimbledon.
Their ability to switch styles - a flowing, passing game at Villa last week, a battling, gutsy display against the determined Dons yesterday - has taken them to the peak of the Premier League and, almost certainly, achieved Walker's first target: 'to avoid relegation'. Targets two and three are a place in Europe and the championship, although Walker is too shrewd a manager to make any rash mid-season predictions. 'Come February or March if we are still in the top three we can say 'hold on, we can win this', ' Walker said.
Come the championship climax, points battled for in the cold winter months could prove vital. Norwich's three-point haul yesterday from a graceless game was a touch fortuitous and secured only in the final minute when David Phillips forced Ruel Fox's low cross over the line.
Norwich's winner - after Lawrie Sanchez and Mark Robins had traded goals - was tinged with contention. Fox appeared to be at least two yards offside as he sprinted through, with Wimbledon's defenders waiting for the linesman to halt his progress. The flag stayed down, Fox swept on and Phillips did the rest for his seventh goal of the season.
Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager, who had spent the game high up in the stands as he started a five-match touchline ban, was the model of diplomacy afterwards. 'I'm in enough trouble without commenting on officials' decisions,' he said. 'The players swear Fox was offside, but footballers always do. They should never have stopped for the flag. I'm bitterly disappointed. I thought we were in charge for most of the game.'
For considerable spells they were. After quelling Fox's early threat down the right, they soon strangled the lines of supply to Norwich's forwards. John Scales had a commanding game in the heart of the Dons' defence, while the young Glaswegian Brian McAllister deputised well for the injured Warren Barton at full-back. McAllister's sterling performance was even honoured with one of the more bizarre chants in world football: 'There's only one Scottish Womble'.
The first half was a frenetic affair, with little to trouble either goalkeeper. In Norwich's best move, Fox, set free by Ian Culverhouse's delightful pass along the right flank, should have squared to the unmarked Daryl Sutch early on but instead shot into the side-netting. Bryan Gunn, the home keeper, was beaten by Robbie Earle's opportunist lob in Wimbledon's most promising attack, but his attentive full-back, Mark Bowen, cleared the danger.
The match became a contest in the 54th minute when Wimbledon, who had previously lost only twice to Norwich in 14 games, took the lead with a typical set- piece goal. McAllister drove a corner from the right and Sanchez, rising above the pack grouped on the six-yard line, headed firmly past Gunn.
Darren Beckford, City's record signing, nearly cancelled out Sanchez's strike two minutes later but his lofted volley hit the bar. Norwich's fingernails were down to the quick when the equaliser came 13 minutes from time.
Fox retrieved Ian Crook's long pass into the right-hand corner and cut the ball back to Culverhouse, whose dipping cross was turned in by Robins from close range for his 11th league goal of the season. Norwich's revival was confirmed at the death when Phillips again exploited Fox's enterprise along the right.
Wimbledon's fans, disappointed at an unmerited defeat which left them third from bottom, at least had the keenly received return from injury of John Fashanu to lift their spirits, the red-booted former England striker going close near the end with a rasping drive which would have felled a gladiator.
Despite Norwich's success, Kinnear remained unimpressed by their title credentials. 'I don't see them as title contenders,' he said. 'They are not strong enough.' A growing band of neutrals would disagree, particularly if Walker can recruit the stylish Swedish international defender Patrik Andersson from Malmo. Walker said afterwards that Norwich had made enquiries about the 21-year-old defender, who has already turned down Leeds this season.
The Norwich manager was full of praise for his current staff, who have now won their last four games. 'The players have earned the right to be top,' he said. 'We have been the best side in the country for a fair while now. Wimbledon are known as party poopers, but we showed we can dig in and stick at it.'
Norwich City: B Gunn; I Culverhouse, M Bowen, I Butterworth, J Polston, D Sutch (G Megson, 75 min), I Crook, D Beckford (C Sutton, 71 min), M Robins, R Fox, D Phillips. Sub not used: M Walton (gk). Manager: M Walker.
Wimbledon: H Segers; S Talboys, R Joseph, V Jones (J Fashanu, 62 min), J Scales, B McAllister, D Blackwell, R Earle, D Holdsworth (T Gibson, 76 min), L Sanchez, P Miller. Sub not used: N Sullivan (gk). Manager: J Kinnear.
Referee: R Groves (Weston-super-Mare).
Goals: Sanchez (0-1, 54 min); Robins (1-1, 77 min); Phillips (2-1, 89 min).