DELIA'S BOILED BEEF AND CARROTS
Mickey Blue Eyes
Prior to Saturday our last three away matches - excluding you-know-who - were Queens Park Rangers, Swansea and Sunderland. On Saturday we were on our way to Norwich (Venta Icenorum according to the Romans) deep in the East Anglian Fens of Norfolk. That's an awful long way to travel just to watch a football match, which prompts the perfectly reasonable question, "Why do we do it?" As we all know, there is no ready answer.
So, up before dawn yet again. This time on a minibus with only ten hardy souls, a tiny sign of how successfully the banks have yet again ripped off our society. As we boarded, someone with fine knowledge of global warming said, "Fuckn 'ell, it's colder than a witch's quim." Terry drove, over four hundred kilometres. Four hours. One way. I took a book. Sleep beckoned somewhere around Sandbach and I didn't come to until we entered flat Oliver Cromwell country, mildly attractive but unremarkable, ancient road alignments often straight and long and soon boringly repetitive, though we saw nothing of The Broads. The Fens have a sort of horizontal novelty but give me The Lakes, Snowdonia and The Dales any day of the week. Bucolia has never interested me except as an occasional rest centre. Inevitably the road signs were different: "Tractors Turning" drew gales of laughter and there were a number of proletarian straight-faced enquiries of deer warnings too. Some of the landscape even looked like small-scale backwoods Virginia. England, I love it. Except London of course.
I had little time to see it but Norwich struck me as a pretty little city, tidy and compact, narrow River Wensum winding its way through the centre, old and new bridges, some expensive river cruisers tied up here and there, not many high rise buildings, and what seemed to be a tight medieval road pattern. A new riverside development even tried not unsuccessfully to ape piecemeal building forms and layout. It looked well worth a non-footy visit. Given its dyed-in-the-wool (no sniggering, scousers) isolated traditional look you'd expect it to be up to its ears in Tories but you'd be wrong; out of thirty-nine council seats I am delighted to report the lying bankers Bullingdon Boys got only two and the other Tories were run out of town.
We ended up in a designated away pub named The Compleat Angler, pleasantly situated on the riverbank next to an old bridge. Inevitably a few voices were heard complaining that the locals, "....don't even fuckn know how to spell 'complete,' the thick fuckn sheep shaggers." But that was the only competitive thing I heard outside on the crowded terrace during a pleasant couple of footy-chat beers. From there I took a stroll along the riverbank and followed the crowd to the stadium. Team colours mixed freely, no problems whatever, a smattering of police to make sure it stayed that way, a nice old-fashioned anticipatory buzz about the place. I liked it a lot, including the much derided local accent and dialect. I didn't hear anybody say, "Oo-ar."
Norwich City is majority-owned by someone named Delia Smith, as if you didn't know. Delia is most famous for getting pissed in a match and getting on the pitch at half time with a microphone to excoriate her own fans over the public address system for not shouting loud enough. Apparently the irony didn't strike her. I haven't read any reports of what was said, presumably muttered, in response by agricultural proles huddled behind the goals. I can guess, though, and so can you. I am willing to bet it wasn't an inquiry as to whether she had been at the Sauvignon Blanc or the Frascati Superiore, or, on a bad day, Pinot Grigio. I am also willing to hazard an opinion that if she tried that at Goodison she'd be hung upside down by her suspender belt outside The Winslow. But enough of the risible already.
Our only two substantial connections with Norwich are one of our best ever centre backs, Dave Watson, and Mike Walker's eleven-months disastrous reign. Also, their current goalkeeper John Ruddy was with us for a while and has done well with them this season. That's it, really. Since then they've been up and down the leagues like Delia's sobriety, currently back in the Premiership and doing right well too, and not many points behind us. It was a promising clash in a neat little stadium packed to near-capacity. Our away allocation of 2,400 was sold out well in advance. Our lot were in subdued moodiness for most of the game, next weeks semi final plainly in mind.
Pienaar back at left mid, Maggy at right, no Felli or Heitinga, centre mids of Gibbo-Phil, Hibbo at right back, Bainsey at left, Cahill/Jelavic up front. Since the seasonal turnaround you get the feeling it hardly matters which team plays. Funny what a good run does for your confidence. Still irritates wildly, though, that it isn't done from the beginning. Fans imaginations run wild as to where we might be if the start was as good as the half way pick up.
Yet again the opening match phase was ours by a long way and a goal looked just a matter of time even without Felli. As usual most of our attacks were down our left via the combo of Bainsey-Pienaar, something which seemed to madden the homesters. Can't think why, unless local agriculture hasn't gone too well. Or maybe it was because they could scarcely cross the half way line. They didn't seem to have much guile except for their little number 24, Howson. On the other hand we were spreading it around well and confidently all over the park. But despite overwhelming possession and movement we weren't producing any clear cut chances. Well, until we scored after twenty minutes that is.
It was another attack on the left. This time involving Bainsey and Cahill while Pienaar stayed wide on the left touchline and stretched the home defence. It was a switch move in which Cahill exchanged places and passes as Bainsey moved inside and then pierced a through pass into the left side of the penalty area to Jags - huh? - who turned back sharply and hit a ground cross to just outside the centre goal area. Where, seemingly inevitably, materialised Nikky Jelavic and he stroked it home almost casually with the outside of his right foot while swivelling with his back to goal. This is the Jimmy Greaves ghost-like quality of an outstanding scorer. If he keeps this up he's going to piss off an awful lot of defenders. He brings an awful lot more to the side, though: sharp movement, good short passing and layoffs, neat heading, everything we missed up front during the first half of the season.
A few minutes later Gibbo broke up an attack on the right half way line in our half, gave it right to Hibbo, a through pass to Tim Cahill, a layoff to Maggy, then another layoff to Hibbo advancing forward. Poor Norwich were running in circles. Wide right, Hibbo hit a cross to the far post where Nikky was closing. It hit the goal angle and came out to Tim, centre and unmarked but it fell awkwardly behind him and he could only hit it against the 'keeper when a second looked certain. But Nikky was offside anyway. At this moment it looked as though another Sunderland away performance was in the offing. Norwich hadn't mustered an attack worthy of the name.
So you knew what was going to happen. They equalised with a soft goal fifteen minutes later, shortly after they had their first shot low past Tim Howard's left post. Ominously, the centre mids and centre backs were slow covering the attack. The build up on our right was straightforward and only because we got slack there, no Maggy, hectares of space, and not quick enough to tackle at crucial moments. It was almost in slow motion and sleepy with a final pass from near the goal line inside the penalty area, sort of drifted across and somehow got inside the centre of the goal area without any of four defenders clearing while all looking at each other. Their man couldn't miss. An annoying one to let in.
Delia didn't appear at half time.
The second half was different. Seamus subbed for Maggy at the restart. Norwich stepped up the tempo without looking anything special. Soon they had a headed chance that Tim saved easily, then a hard hit shot from the centre edge of the D that rebounded off him and he then cleared with a flying kick. Things then got a bit tasty as the home team tried and failed to wrest control, a little bit of intimidation here, a little bit of hustling there, but Our Boys gave as good as they got. Plainly, Moyesy wanted to stiffen the contest so he sent on Felli in place of a tiring Phil Neville. Five minutes later we were in front again, on the hour mark.
Another attack down our left involving Bainsey and Pienaar. Bodies on the ground, homesters complaining over something or other, Felli as usual came out of it with the ball glued to his feet and exchanged tap-passes with Bainsey tight on our left touchline, through to Pienaar in the left of the penalty area, a few strides forward and a left footed pull-back to, where else, just outside the angle of the nearside goal area, and it got side footed home through a crowd by, who else, Nikky. It must be like trying to mark dawn mist.
Norwich had nothing to lose so they then played route one stuff as our centre players began to tire. Again, it was nothing dazzling, just over-the-top-and-chase, Delia's boiled beef and carrots, in which their centre forward Holt did a reasonable mimic of Denis Stracqualursi. Still, it undid us with a quarter hour left. The ball went over our by now slow centre backs, their man chased through the middle, clear, and hit one against Tim. It bounced out to our left where Jags anaemically lost a tussle and it got laid across to Holt unmarked on the other side of the box and even he couldn't miss. They had a couple of threats later and Felli had a header saved. And that's how it finished 2-2.
On balance it was just about a fair result. As always at this time of the season, though, you were left with the feeling that we should have won, in fact would have won with a full side out from the start. Yet that is how the squad game is played now. The days of playing a full team in every match are long gone. It's maddening but that's the way it is. Let's hope Moyesy's judgment pays off in the semi final.