Norwich ecstasy as Ashton finds way out of drop zone

Norwich City 1 - Birmingham City 0
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The Independent Football

Dean Ashton's penalty on the stroke of half-time may provide the lifebelt which keeps Norwich afloat in the Premiership. Their narrow, and undeserved, win over a Birmingham reduced to 10 men after half an hour, when Damien Johnson was dismissed by referee Steve Bennett, lifted Norwich out of the bottom three, a surge which was greeted by the loudest bellow of the afternoon from a packed Carrow Road as the Selhurst Park draw flashed up on the indicator board.

Dean Ashton's penalty on the stroke of half-time may provide the lifebelt which keeps Norwich afloat in the Premiership. Their narrow, and undeserved, win over a Birmingham reduced to 10 men after half an hour, when Damien Johnson was dismissed by referee Steve Bennett, lifted Norwich out of the bottom three, a surge which was greeted by the loudest bellow of the afternoon from a packed Carrow Road as the Selhurst Park draw flashed up on the indicator board.

Whether the Canaries do manage to survive will now go down to the final day of the season next Sunday. That they have been permitted this opportunity is to the credit of Ashton, the £3m signing from Crewe in January. The penalty, walloped home after Birmingham's captain, Kenny Cunningham, felled Darren Huckerby, was his seventh goal for the club on top of the 19 he had collected for Crewe, and yesterday's alone could yet be worth the transfer fee.

Nigel Worthington, the Norwich manager, acknowledged his team had played indifferently. "But right now the result is more important than the performance, and it is a great three points. We've given ourselves a chance."

Norwich nerves were understandable, and forgivable, but to see them pinned back for most of the match by Birmingham's 10 had the Norwich faithful buzzing with concern. At least Birmingham's display set at rest any speculation that, with nothing to play for, they might have taken the foot off the pedal. "We could easily have rolled over," said the Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce, "but it shows their honesty and integrity that everyone ran a million miles with 10 men."

Bruce was also enraged at the perceived severity of Bennett, who issued five yellows to Birmingham as well as the straight red shown to Johnson, who appeared to punch Thomas Helveg in the stomach after the defender had held him back. "I can't justify anyone raising their hands," he said, "but I can't remember a bad challenge in the whole game. That's all we talk about now, referees. They are so fussy, especially this one."

After Ashton had quickly revealed his menace by neatly flicking the ball over Matthew Upson's head, only to push it too close to Maik Taylor as he closed in on goal, Birmingham settled to dominate the midfield. They knocked the ball around with such authority that Norwich rapidly grew frustrated, while Jermaine Pennant and Mario Melchiot combined to keep the left side of the home defence in a permanent state of anxiety.

One such piece of combination set up Walter Pandiani after 10 minutes, only for the Uruguayan to clip the crossbar with a dipping effort. Jamie Clapham and Melchiot saw attempts turned away for corners and, even when Johnson had been dismissed, Birmingham continued to look the better side.

But Huckerby, revelling in his new role of left-sided midfielder, engineered the vital break when he burst down the left and cut in towards goal, only to be crudely brought down by the experienced Cunningham. The award of a penalty by Bennett was instant, and correct, and Ashton hammered his kick down the middle as Taylor dived to the right.

Ashton might easily have put Norwich beyond reach early in the second half, miskicking badly in front of goal and then striking a fierce, low shot which Taylor was relieved to beat away, before making another fine, instinctive stop from Leon McKenzie at point-blank range. But soon the undermanned visitors were swarming towards Robert Green's net, without causing him much bother until Clinton Morrison suddenly sprang to life, turning to strike a marvellous shot against the bar and then glancing a header off the same piece of woodwork.

As the frantic Norwich fans let rip with piercing whistles to indicate time was up, Green held a rocketing effort from Stephen Clemence. However, their cheer when Mr Bennett did blow for time was nothing compared to the roar which greeted the Palace-Southampton result.

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