Danny Shittu's barging, 11th minute header looked set to prove the only difference between the two teams at Vicarage Road tonight until second-half substitute Jamie Cureton bagged his third goal in as many games to turn the contest on its head and earn Norwich a deserved 1-1 draw with promotion-hunting Watford.
It was certainly a strike worthy of stealing any point in this division as he sent an 80th minute volley looping away and beyond Richard Lee from some 18-yards distant.
It was all that the Canaries deserved after standing up to all that Watford could physically throw at them, though it still needed an extraordinary, finger-tip save from David Marshall to deny Dion Dublin a 'winner' as the City striker's attempted defensive header looped up towards the top corner.
What difference tonight's point will make to Norwich's slowing play-off chase is a moot point, but if nothing else it proved once more to Canary boss Glenn Roeder that he has heart and spirit in abundance in his squad.
If Spanish full-back Juan Velasco wanted the full introduction to the earthy delights of English, Championship football, then he couldn't have asked for much more than a dank, squally night at Vicarage Road – and all against a side that has made playing 'the Championship way' into something of an art form.
At least the Canaries opted to match a little of Watford's physical fire with some of their own as Matty Pattison added a little bite alongside skipper Mark Fotheringham in the heart of the Norwich midfield. It was, in fairness, never really going to suit someone with the lightness of touch and frame as a Kieran Gibbs. It was a night for South African bull-dogs, not sleek greyhounds.
If the first five minutes were to be any guide, it was also likely to be a long and testing night as Nathan Ellington made his presence felt in the early exchanges.
Tommy Smith wriggled free in virtually the first minute only for a lurking Ellington to blaze well over from some 16 yards out; five minutes later and he was powering away from Alex Pearce through that inside right channel only for David Marshall to bravely block his first effort; Ellington to thump over with his second.
Norwich's reprieve proved short-lived as the Hornets stormed into the lead in the 11th minute. A second corner swung deep into the Canary box and there, powering in through the crowd, was the man-mountain himself – Shittu – to slam his ninth goal of the season home from little more than eight yards out.
Nine goals from centre-half by the first week in March is no mean feat and may – perhaps – reflect a style of play that Roeder might describe as uncomplicated.
But it worked; boy, did it work. And as the game drifted towards the 20-minute mark with Norwich having just a tame, 20-yard Fotheringham effort to show by way of a response, so – for now – the Norfolk side had little immediate answer to Aidy Boothroyd's traditional battle plan.
Ched Evans, restored ahead of the luckless Cureton, worked his channel only for every ball and bounce to squirm away from him, while Fotheringham and Pattison tried to dig in against midfiled opponents some three inches taller and, in every likelihood, a stone heavier. And in John Eustace, Boothroyd boasted a new arrival schooled by Tony Pulis at Stoke.
In fairness, as the wintry squall gathered in intensity, City were starting to claw their way back into the contest without ever really giving Richard Lee much to worry about. Dublin, in particular, was starting to win the odd header; Pattison hit a snap-shot straight at Lee; Watford's early storm had blown out. They blew briefly back into like in the 36th minute when Jobi McAnuff unleashed a venomous, swerving drive that crashed into Marshall's chest from some 20-yards distant.
Otherwise it was Norwich starting to look the brighter even if Pattison could only scuff a 25-yard shot wide following a decent, five-pass move in the 38th minute. In the midst of it all and new-boy Velasco was having a solid enough first start as Dublin latched onto a decent Evans flick only to send his volley looping into Lee's waiting arms.
Evans would deserve more than a goal-kick for a darting run the length of a half to rob Lee deep by the corner flag. Slap bang in front of the Press box, it was Lee who had the last touch.
Out bright, early and unchanged, the Canaries carved out the first half-chance of the second period as Lee Croft dug out a cross for Dublin to head a couple of yards wide. The 38-year-old would sweep an easier chance over moments later after a Shittu error gifted the ball to Croft's feet. If Roeder's appearance on the touchline is any kind of weather-vane as to the level of his team's performance, it was Lee Clark holding court on his own in the technical area.
Croft's growing involvement would see the 22-year-old head goalward in the 55th minute before forcing Lee into a low save to his right. In between time, Dublin had inadvertantly blocked an Ellington drive and Shittu had almost charged another corner home as Watford began to make their own impression on proceedings. City responded – Evans drilling a low, 30-yard free-kick at Lee's ankles which the Watford keeper could only gather at the second attempt.
The hour-mark produced the first change of the game as Pearce – appearing to be gingerly feeling his left ankle – made way for Jason Shackell. With one-time Canary transfer target Leigh Bromby now left to heave the ball into the Canary box via his long throws, Shackell would have every opportunity to prove his physical worth.
Evidence that Velasco might be happy to mix it in this division arrived not long after with a studs up scrape down Ellington's thigh which prompted the game's first booking. It was a rare moment of mid-half drama as Watford looked to see the game out. City continued to press, but it was all hard graft. Very hard graft as Roeder went for bust with Cureton's arrival for Mo Camara.
Watford (4-4-2): Lee; Mariappa, Shittu, Bromby, Sadler (Stewart, 71 mins); McAnuff, O'Toole, Eustace, Smith; Ellington (John, 75 mins), Henderson. Subs (not used): Poom, DeMerit, Williamson.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Marshall; Velasco, Camara (Cureton, 74 mins), Doherty, Pearce (Shackell, 60 mins); Croft (Otsemobor, 88 mins), Pattison, Fotheringham, Bertrand; Dublin, Evans. Subs (not used): Gilks, Gibbs.
Man of the Match: Gary Doherty.
Leave a Reply