Norwich City brought back down to earth
David Cuffley Norwich City 2, Watford 3: The first mistake at Carrow Road came a few minutes before kick-off - though in fairness the Canaries may not have been responsible for it.
Norwich City 2, Watford 3
The first mistake at Carrow Road came a few minutes before kick-off - though in fairness the Canaries may not have been responsible for it.
Even though it was only three months ago, harking back to City's title success by bringing out a huge banner proclaiming “League One champions” was probably not the wisest move.
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First of all, it had no relevance to the opening Championship game against Watford, in a different division, a different season, and a completely different ball game.
As manager Paul Lambert succinctly put it after his team's 3-2 defeat: “Last year's gone. You stress that to people - what you've done in the past stays in the past. You don't live on it.”
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And secondly, it was, of course, a very different Norwich City team on show.
Six of the players who marched out of the tunnel alongside the Hornets to make their debuts did not make any contribution to securing the silverware back in April, so to ask if the Championship may have been a culture shock for Lambert's team after they waltzed through the division below was perhaps a red herring.
Lack of familiarity may, however, have been a contributory factor to City's defeat as they introduced six new faces on the opening day for the third season in a row - and have three defeats to show for it.
It might have been just five debutants against Watford but for the difficulties facing skipper Grant Holt, though it was ultimately lack of match fitness rather than a magistrates' court date in Shropshire - which he failed to keep - that confined him to the bench as summer signing Simeon Jackson partnered Chris Martin in attack.
In the end, Holt played only the final 18 minutes. Instead, the best striker on show on the night was undoubtedly Watford's Danny Graham, who scored twice to give ex-Canary hero Malky Mackay a winning return to his old stamping ground as a manager.
There was no doubt that Mackay's men deserved their success. In the first half, at least, they looked stronger, sharper and more familiar with each other's game and they could have been more than two goals ahead at the interval.
But for a fine first-half save by goalkeeper John Ruddy and a glaring miss by defender Adrian Mariappa following an error by Ruddy after the break, the damage on City's eagerly-awaited opening night could have been worse.
Watford began brightly and had the first shot at goal in the fourth minute when skipper John Eustace fired over from outside the area from Will Buckley's pass.
City replied with Chris Martin nodding down Michael Nelson's cross to Jackson, but he was unable to make clean contact as Martin Taylor - another ex-Norwich centre-half - challenged, keeper Scott Loach making a comfortable save.
Ruddy did well to grab a cross from Don Cowie at full stretch, then Graham volleyed off target from a tight angle, and it was not a huge surprise when Watford took the lead from their first corner in the 14th minute. Cowie took a return pass from the kick and his cross was chested down by skipper John Eustace, who rifled a left-foot shot past Ruddy with the help of a deflection off another debutant, defender Elliott Ward.
City produced their best effort of the half in the 21st minute when Loach dived to his right to keep out Andrew Surman's free-kick.
But it was 2-0 in the 24th minute as Graham produced an excellent finish after a neat one-two with Marvin Sordell, who hooked the ball perfectly into his path.
With Watford fans chanting “We want seven” and “We are top of the league”, the spectre of last season's opening day hammering hovered. And, to prevent it becoming 3-0, Ruddy had to make a vital save from Buckley after 29 minutes, diving to his right to palm away the shot after Sordell again got the better of the home defence.
Jackson fired into the side netting after a flick from Chris Martin five minutes before the break as City flickered briefly, but they eventually reduced the deficit seven minutes after the break.
Wes Hoolahan, whose poise and inventiveness were in contrast to the general performance, made good headway before picking out Jackson, whose neat backheel fell perfectly for Andrew Crofts to drill a low right-foot shot past Loach from the edge of the area.
There was a lucky escape for City after 58 minutes, however, when Ruddy spilled a cross from Buckley but Mariappa headed wide of an empty net.
David Fox brought Loach into action with a shot from the edge of the area before City made their first change with 18 minutes left when Holt replaced Jackson.
With 10 minutes left, Holt headed wide from Hoolahan's cross at the end of a flowing City move, but any hope of a comeback was short-lived.
Watford effectively made the game safe nine minutes from time. City protested about a shove on acting skipper Michael Nelson in the build-up to the goal but with Ward unable to clear effectively, the ball was swept wide to Graham, who threaded a low shot just inside the post for his second goal of the night.
Nelson pulled a goal back as the clock passed 90 minutes, shooting home from close range after excellent work by Crofts and a neat dummy by Chris Martin.
But it was too little, too late, and the new season started as the previous one began and ended, with a home defeat.