Norwich pay ultimate penalty

Leeds United2McAllister pen 80, Palmer 90 Norwich City1 Ward 36 Attendance: 31,982
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THERE is no good way to be cast from the sunlit heights of the Premiership into the outer darkness of the Endsleigh League, but Norwich have found one of the worst. From the top third of the table before Christmas into deep trouble, and then to see their last hope destroyed by a disputed penalty decision 11 minutes from time yesterday, is as cruel a way to go as any.

Norwich, whose wedge of Canary-clad supporters came from Carrow Road with their usual paraphernalia of signs telling their chairman, Robert Chase, that it was time to go, had reason to hope that their team's time to go from the Premiership might at least be delayed.

They led through a 35th- minute goal from Ashley Ward, gifted to him when the Leeds goalkeeper, John Lukic, came out of his area and completely missed his kick, and then showed some of the qualities which, if employed a little earlier in the year, would have kept them well clear of relegation.

Not only did Norwich defend resolutely against a side needing points towards their own ambition of European qualification, they also showed half-forgotten touches of class from the likes of Ian Crook, Mark Bowen and Jeremy Goss that were familiar features when they were involved at the other end of the table.

When Gary Speed missed the best chance Leeds had created so far from a close-range volley on 75 minutes, Norwich's caretaker manager, Gary Megson, thought that his side would live to fight on.

The penalty put paid to that. "The players involved are adamant not only that it wasn't a penalty but, if anything, it was going to go the other way," Megson said. "It never crossed our minds it was going to be a penalty."

A furious scramble in their area ended with the grounded Rob Newman lunging at the ball and Tony Yeboah going down. The referee, Alan Wilkie, hesitated like a cautious cricket umpire before pointing to the spot and Gary McAllister's low shot into the corner did the rest.

Megson said that Norwich's sinking feeling began earlier in the day when they saw Wilkie was the referee. "And nothing happened to dispel it," he said.

But the Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson, believed: "They had a bit of luck with the goal and maybe we had a bit of luck with the penalty." But Wilkinson, who saw his team miss at least three good chances in the last 10 minutes before Carlton Palmer put a deflated Norwich out of their misery, meeting Speed's cross on the far post, added: "They put nine men behind the ball at times which created problems for us. We had to grind away until we got the first goal, but the spirit, character and determination of my players was never in doubt."

Megson reflected: "It's a galling way to lose a match, and an even worse way to go down. Now Norwich have some very big decisions to make, not about my position, but about where the club is going from here."