Football: Robins back with three points to prove

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

IN HIS book, Six Years At United, Alex Ferguson reveals that when Manchester United won 3-1 at Norwich City last season, he thought: 'This is a championship team.' The question today, as Norwich take a seven-point lead in the Premier League to Old Trafford, is which team did he have in mind?

Mike Walker, the Norwich manager, cautioned after the victory at Aston Villa a fortnight ago that he would believe they had a chance of the title if they were still winning such matches in March. As United's illusory triumph at Carrow Road proved, even the final day of that month is too soon to start counting your championship chickens.

In terms of self-belief and squad morale, however, avoiding defeat on the ground of arguably their strongest challengers could have immense value to Norwich. While they will hardly need motivating, Mark Robins has more incentive than most to perform to the peak of his ability.

The comparison between Robins, sold by Ferguson for pounds 800,000, and Eric Cantona, who cost him half as much again and is likely to play at least part of the game, should be instructive. The United manager once described the FA National School graduate as 'the best natural finisher in the club', yet offloaded him despite the lack of a marksman which let in Leeds last spring.

By contrast, the gifted Cantona seems to find difficulty scoring the 'ordinary' goals that are Robins's stock-in-trade. Nor, during his sojourn at Leeds, did the Frenchman show an appetite for the work off the ball required of forwards in the English game, the chief criticism of Robins before he moved.

Ferguson said yesterday he had no regrets over Robins, adding: 'I like him. He'll always score goals, but I didn't think he was better than Hughes or McClair.' Robins, meanwhile, anticipated a good reception - 'unless I score'.

Bottom-placed Nottingham Forest could have asked for a less taxing fixture in which to continue their revival than Aston Villa away in what should be a purist's delight. Villa, lying fourth, are the bookies' new favourites, a status dismissed as 'barmy' by Ron Atkinson yesterday. Because of their large lead, he thinks 'Norwich are the favourites. . .as any team eight points clear have to be,' he said. It's an unusual thing to be saying, but everyone who fancies their chances will be hoping United beat them.'

The Villa manager also drooled over Forest's Roy Keane 'the best young midfield player to emerge since Bryan Robson' claiming that if Villa bought him, 'you could put a fortune on us to win the League'. Another club who covet the Irishman, Arsenal, still have their backers, although they will dwindle if they lose a fourth successive match, at neighbouring Tottenham.

Like Robins, Kenny Dalglish goes 'home' tomorrow, taking third-placed Blackburn to Liverpool where he enjoyed 14 years as player, manager and all-round deity. Both teams may be too dependent on one man for attacking menace to sustain a title push Dalglish's most inspired buy, John Barnes, and his most expensive, Alan Shearer, respectively although Ian Rush will be back for Liverpool.

Howard Wilkinson's first return to Sheffield Wednesday, nearly a year ago, ended with his leaping on to the physio's table in an uncharacteristic show of jubilation after Leeds' 6-1 win. Today the Yorkshire rivals meet at Elland Road both, surprisingly, requiring a win to stay clear of the relegation zone. Any repeat of last week's showing against Forest and Wilkinson may need the table for different reasons.

Tomorrow is derby day in Bristol or rather Bath, where the exiled Rovers take on City in a First Division match given added allure by Malcolm Allison's early impact on the hosts' form. Derby themselves receive Birmingham, having just announced plans to vacate the Baseball Ground by 1994, which seems an over-reaction to the Rams' appalling home run.