Saints expose tepid Canaries

STEVE GEDGE And so the St Mary's misery goes on. Four visits, four defeats, and no sign that that sorry sequence is suddenly about to come to an end. True, Saturday's match didn't have any particular low points to rival past trips - Paul McVeigh hitting the woodwork moments before the Saints broke away to score the first of their two goals in the 2003 FA Cup fifth-round tie, with Malky Mackay later getting sent off; Henri Camara grabbing an 88th-minute winner in the Premiership 4-3 defeat which had such significance for the final day of the season; or Robert Green's first-ever competitive penalty save in the 1-0 loss last season only for Nigel Quashie to the

STEVE GEDGE

And so the St Mary's misery goes on. Four visits, four defeats, and no sign that that sorry sequence is suddenly about to come to an end.

True, Saturday's match didn't have any particular low points to rival past trips - Paul McVeigh hitting the woodwork moments before the Saints broke away to score the first of their two goals in the 2003 FA Cup fifth-round tie, with Malky Mackay later getting sent off; Henri Camara grabbing an 88th-minute winner in the Premiership 4-3 defeat which had such significance for the final day of the season; or Robert Green's first-ever competitive penalty save in the 1-0 loss last season only for Nigel Quashie to then be given a second chance because of encroachment.

No, this time City were beaten fair and square by a much better team.


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They did, to be fair, match their hosts as the game wore on, but by then the damage had been done, and Robert Earnshaw's goal was perhaps the most against-the-run-of-play score since Poland took the lead against England at Wembley in 1973.

A well-taken enough effort, sure, but at the time it left you to conclude that Peter Grant's pre-match preparations had been as follows: his players were sent out to scour Southampton city centre for every luck charm and rabbit's foot going, while he, having discovered that the National Black Cat Convention was being staged nearby, got every exhibit to walk up and down in front of him.

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At the start of the season I put both City and Southampton to be in the top six in the Norwich City Independent Supporters' Association's annual prediction competition (I know, I know). On Saturday the Saints looked every bit a side heading for at least the play-offs, whereas the Canaries... well, let's just say it's what you've ccome to expect over the course of the last month or so.

It wasn't that they were as bad or off the pace as they were against Hull and Sheffield Wednesday, but up against better opposition they just looked very ordinary. Southampton are the best side they have faced since West Brom five weeks earlier and you soon realised that City weren't going to have a repeat of their unexpected victory at The Hawthorns. There, they looked fully composed, whereas at St Mary's it was all a bit more frantic - how often did you see Paul Gallacher hurl himself one way while the ball was deflected the other courtesy of a desperate last-gasp challenge.

No, you have to say that after a run of four points from a possible 18 - and three straight defeats too - that the Canaries don't have what it takes for this season. While other teams at the top are grinding out pre-Christmas win after win in the same sort of fashion that City did in 2003, Grant's men are... well, it's hard to say what, really. When you're still trying out both formations - and it has to be said that Darren Huckerby's early exit did not go down well with parts of the away support on Saturday - and players I guess it's hard to expect any kind of consistency, but large spells of recent games have been incredibly dull.

Perhaps the best thing to come out of Saturday's game was Lee Croft's safe return, because he provided a bit of the spark that City have been lacking of late, though, to be fair, you did see some moments of vintage Huckerby before his untimely departure.

While I think City's promotion hopes are now over, you would surely hope that they will get the seven wins from the last 24 fixtures - having, as they do, with three holiday games to come against sides below them in the table - to reach the magic total of 50 and end any idle speculation that they might be dragged into a relegation struggle.

But games like Saturday's are what we have to expect until Grant can put together his own squad. Overall, though, 17 points from his first 12 games in charge is a favourable enough return and one less than Nigel Worthington's start in 2000/1 - and did you detect the same slight undercurrent against the incoming manager then?

City's fortunes now rest entirely on the lunchtime of January 6.

Go there and be professional and win by a couple of goals and no-one in these parts will mind another fairly dull display - although it might put off a nationwide television audience.

Fail to win, or even just fall behind, and you sense a few knives will be sharpened to aim at under-achieving midfielders and quite possibly the manager too.

Winning at Tamworth, sad as it sounds, is what City now have to be working towards in their next four games.

Worthington was lucky in that his first FA Cup tie in charge was a defeat at Sheffield Wednesday, a predictable outcome that, I recall, hardly set too many alarms bells ringing. Grant has a rather more awkward pairing to deal with.

If City start like they have finished the last two games, they will win, no question. But the lesson of the last three games is that they have to start taking charge of matches, rather than staging late fightbacks in vain.

You just hope that the Canaries' reward for a professional job at Tamworth wouldn't be a fourth-round visit to St Mary's...

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