Football: Villa undone by Polston's late plunge

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The Independent Online
Norwich City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Aston Villa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

VILLA spurned a hatful of chances, and were left to rue their extravagance when John Polston's winner, nine minutes from time, knocked them off the top of the table and thrust Norwich right back in the forefront of the most intriguing title race since Brian Clough's Derby won it, reclining on the beach.

Norwich are the new leaders, for the eighth time this season, on 65 points, with Villa one behind in second place, and Manchester United, on 63, in third.

All three remain in contention, this match, and its outcome, making nonsense of the suggestion that Norwich had surrendered the chance when they lost 3-0 at Wimbledon on Saturday. In fairness, it was Mike Walker, their manager, doing most of the suggesting, and he now admits that his televised concession was made with tongue lodged firmly in cheek.

Manchester United are due at Carrow Road on 5 April, and if Norwich were to win that one, too, the country cousins would be favourite to poop the elitists' party by taking the inaugural Premier League title.

Villa will have kicked themselves all the way back to the Midlands after losing a match they ought to have won. They should have had an unassailable lead by half-time, but Dean Saunders, whose barren run now extends to eight games, and Dwight Yorke failed to do justice to their incisive approach play. Dalian Atkinson may be needed if they are to improve upon the runners-up spot they held under Graham Taylor, two years ago.

Their profligacy last night cost them three precious points when Polston rewarded Norwich for their unflagging spirit by plunging in at the near post to score at close range.

A memorable week, this, for the Norwich captain, who became a father for the first time on Tuesday. Twenty-four hours later, it was 'Big Fat Ron', as Atkinson's army call him, who looked like he was about to go into labour - having kittens. Villa had been left holding the baby, beaten for the first time in seven matches and worried by Saunders' inability to recapture the form which made him so prolific in the first half of the season. 'We were unlucky,' Atkinson said. 'We were the better side.'

They were, too. Villa played a handsome part in a match with all its rich promise, that was small consolation as they made their weary cross- country retreat.

For a long time they had looked the part of would-be champions, only the poverty of their finishing betraying them. Four good goal attempts in the first 15 minutes set the pattern, giving them the initiative, but no tangible advantage.

Saunders deserved full marks for persistence, but in terms of accuracy this was one of his B-minus nights. Ditto Yorke.

Yorke's cross, knocked down by Cyrille Regis, offered Saunders his first chance, but a hooked shot from 12 yards flew tantalisingly wide. That was to be the way of it.

When the Welshman was on target the header with which he beat Bryan Gunn was disallowed, for offside.

Yorke failed to profit from three opportunities, the best of them seeing the flyer from Tobago head straight into Gunn's legs at negligible range.

Mark Bosnich produced an outstanding save to keep out Gary Megson's shot from 10 yards, when Norwich began to turn the tables.

Villa's Australian goalkeeper, outstanding at Old Trafford the week before last, further reinforced the excellent impression he has made since replacing Nigel Spink, 10 games ago.

Villa's worst miss came midway through the second half, when Garry Parker rounded the goalkeeper, only to shoot into the side netting. Dozy Parker was withdrawn, and insult was added to injury when Ian Crook's corner was met at the near post by Megson and Bosnich could only divert his header into the path of Polston, who scored at close range.

Norwich City: Gunn; Culverhouse, Bowen, Sutton, Polston, Megson, Crook, Goss, Robins (Power, 83), Fox, Phillips. Substitutes not used: Woodthorpe, Walton (gk).

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker (Daley, 82), Saunders, Yorke, Regis. Substitutes not used: Small, Spink (gk).

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

Blades cut down Coventry, page 39

(Photograph omitted)