Marathon finish not quite in reach

David Cuffley Norwich City 1, MK Dons 1: Finishing the marathon in London in April has been regarded as more than a distinct possibility by thousands of Norwich City fans over the past few weeks. No, not the sight of yellow and green hordes staggering up The Mall to the line to collect their medals, but the prospect of their team clinching promotion in the capital.

David Cuffley

Norwich City 1, MK Dons 1

Finishing the marathon in London in April has been regarded as more than a distinct possibility by thousands of Norwich City fans over the past few weeks.

No, not the sight of yellow and green hordes staggering up The Mall to the line to collect their medals, but the prospect of their team clinching promotion in the capital.


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Tomorrow's trip to Leyton Orient or possibly next Saturday's game at Charlton - a district through which the runners pass in the early stages of the big race itself on April 25 - were touted as prime candidates for the day when the Canaries would book their return to the Championship.

Now the finishing tape may not be so close. A run of one win, one draw and one defeat in the past three matches has not raised any serious doubts about City's ability to finish the job, with a maximum of seven points - but probably fewer - required from the final five games, but it may just have delayed the moment at least until they are back at Carrow Road in front of another full house.

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It is not possible for Paul Lambert's team to guarantee promotion at Orient, and so stage an historic re-enactment, but subject to other results they could still go to The Valley with the chance to complete the task on the ground where their relegation was confirmed 11 months ago.

Their mission has become potentially more difficult because of the absence of star forward Wes Hoolahan, whose guile and unpredictability have been sorely missed in the last two home matches, and now skipper Grant Holt, banned for both games in London after collecting his 10th booking of the season in a bad-tempered encounter with MK Dons.

Holt was on the receiving end of one of the 11 yellow cards brandished by referee Kevin Friend - two of them shown to Dons striker Aaron Wilbraham, who was involved in most of the game's key moments.

Wilbraham scored the opening goal, was booked for handling, committed another blatant handball that even his manager deemed was a definite penalty - while the hapless Mr Friend did not - then conceded the last-minute free-kick that earned him a second yellow card, followed by red, and gave Chris Martin the chance to fire home a stunning equaliser.

The goal was greeted with jubilation and enormous relief by another near full house at Carrow Road and was the least City deserved. Beaten 2-1 and to a great extent bullied by MK Dons back in September, they were on the brink of being doubled for the first time this season when Martin at least attained some degree of justice.

His late rescue act may not have been necessary had City been able to cash in on a bright opening, which could have seen them three goals up in 14 minutes.

The visitors had to be thankful for a goalline clearance from Mark Carrington as Gary Doherty got in a header from the first corner of the match by Anthony McNamee, then, after Darren Powell fouled Holt - and trod on him in the process - Doherty went close again from the resulting free-kick by Darel Russell, producing a powerful header that 'keeper Willy Gueret tipped over. Gueret next denied Holt with his outstretched left leg when the skipper looked certain to score from Russell Martin's excellent cross.However, Wilbraham's 20th-minute goal took the wind out of City's sails. Russell Martin attempted to head clear from Peter Leven's inswinging corner but only succeeded in setting up Wilbraham to volley home at the far post.

City stumbled for a while, but regained their momentum and had the ball in the net eight minutes before the break. Russell's cross from the left drifted inside the far post, but Chris Martin was adjudged to have fouled goalkeeper Gueret. It was debatable whether it was a foul, but the first yellow card of the afternoon added insult to injury.

From then the bookings flowed and so did the chances, most of them in the MK Dons' goalmouth.

After the break, Holt headed wide from Simon Lappin's cross and he was denied again when Gueret beat away his left-foot shot.

Ex-Canary Luke Chadwick, one of the Dons' few cultured performers, was still among those booked - as he was in the first meeting between the two sides. Then came Holt's needless and costly caution for deliberate handball.

In a rare MK break, City 'keeper Declan Rudd kept them in the game after 72 minutes when he saved bravely in a one-on-one against Jermaine Easter, colliding with team-mate Adam Drury in the process.

Eight minutes from time, it was Rudd's long kick forward that led to probably the biggest talking point of the match, as Doherty chased it into the corner of the penalty area, tried to hook the ball back into the middle and watched as Wilbraham reached up with his right hand to palm it away. Referee Friend, possibly the only man in the ground not to see the offence, awarded a corner.

The home crowd were incensed by the decision and by the referee's performance in general, but help was at hand with one minute left.

Wilbraham's trip on substitute Oli Johnson earned him a second yellow card, followed by red, and the scene was set for Martin to drill home the free-kick right-footed, a splendid encore after his 89th-minute winner against Leeds at the same end of the ground a fortnight earlier.

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