Pass marks for O'Neill's class

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The Independent Online
PAUL NEWMAN

Norwich City 1 Crystal Palace 0

Unpredictability may be one of sport's great attractions, but the weekend brought reassurance that there are at least some certainties. England cricket teams can be relied upon to fall flat on their faces at the start of a tour, no grand prix is complete without at least one driver having something to complain about, and, whatever the circumstances, Norwich City players will always pass the ball.

After their pass-and-move game had failed to save them from relegation at the end of last season, Norwich might have been tempted to change to kick-and-run as they prepared for the hurly-burly of the First Division. Instead they appointed Martin O'Neill as manager.

O'Neill's philosophy is in the best traditions of Carrow Road and his arrival has ensured continuity of both style and personnel. Of the 14 players on duty on Saturday, only Robert Fleck was not at the club last season.

More cynical Norwich supporters would see that as evidence of a lack of ambition and there were demonstrations on Saturday against the chairman, Robert Chase, who has hinted that the club must cut its wage bill. O'Neill has found his way round the lack of funds by recruiting a striker in an exchange deal: Mike Sheron is bound for Stoke City in a straight swap for Keith Scott, a striker who played under O'Neill at Wycombe.

The demonstrations were probably muted by Norwich's encouraging performance. Jon Newsome and Spencer Prior rarely looked in trouble at the centre of the defence, the ball moved sweetly around the midfield even after the departures of the injured Ian Crook and Andy Johnson, and Ashley Ward and Fleck were a handful in attack.

The winning margin should have been greater, but what Norwich lacked was a real cutting edge around the penalty area. The outcome might have been different had they not lost Johnson on the stroke of half-time. The young midfielder always looked a threat and won the match with his seventh goal of the season, taking advantage of slack Palace marking at a corner.

O'Neill was more than satisfied with his team. "Given the circumstances I'd say that was our best performance of the season," he said. "The spirit out there was just tremendous, and although we only won 1-0, the score could have been anything."

What a contrast with Crystal Palace, whose post-relegation turmoil continues. They were woefully short of attacking ideas, with Gareth Taylor, their pounds 1.6m signing from Bristol Rovers, looking increasingly ill at ease. Andy Roberts, a pounds 2.3m purchase from Millwall, was their most accomplished player, but Palace must wonder how much longer they can afford to play a midfielder of his ability in the centre of a five-man defence.

Goal: Johnson (44) 1-0.

Norwich City (4-4-2): Gunn; Bradshaw, Newsome, Prior, Ullathorne; Bowen, Crook (Adams, 21), Johnson (Akinbiyi, h-t), Eadie; Ward, Fleck. Substitute not used: Marshall (gk).

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Martyn; Edworthy, Shaw, Roberts, Coleman, Vincent; Hopkin, Freedman, Pitcher; Taylor, Dyer (McKenzie, 56). Substitutes not used: Matthew, Sparrow.

Referee: T E West (Hull).

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