Happy Valley – thanks to the man we called the Admiral
Focus Images 2010
It seems highly appropriate that a man named Nelson was responsible for one of the great days in the history of Norwich City.
It was 3.34pm on a bright Saturday afternoon in south London 10 years ago today when Michael Nelson, blessed with a surname that quickly earned him the nickname, the Admiral, rose high at the far post to head in the only goal of the game at Charlton.
Eight months and nine days had passed since the same team – almost – had started the season with a 7-1 home defeat to a team managed by the man who ended up masterminding their return to the Championship. Paul Lambert’s name may have been tainted by events that followed some time later (and more recently as well). But there is no doubting his place in the City history books and there is no doubting that during his time as manager he took us all on a magnificent ride from the depths of League One to mid-table security in the Premier League.
It had all started when Lambert said goodbye to Colchester after that stunning opening day win at Carrow Road, and was handed the keys to the office vacated by the axed Bryan Gunn. City weren’t rock bottom - Southampton were, but only by virtue of a points deduction carried over from their own relegation alongside the Canaries a few months earlier. But they might as well have been. Glum wasn’t the word.
But then Lambert set to work, shifting the dead wood and forcing us all to use the phrase “young and hungry” to describe his players. Truth is, they weren’t exactly young. But they were hungry. Led by the talismanic captain Grant Holt and the mercurial midfielder Wes Hoolahan, City moved inexorably up the League One table. By January, they were top, courtesy of a win over Brentford. Leeds had once had a 15-point lead...
The next target was promotion; the icing on the cake would be the title.
When they headed to Charlton, part one was there for the taking: it needed results to go their way. And they did.
There was a certain irony that it all happened at The Valley, of course - that was the place City’s relegation had been confirmed the previous season as they departed the Championship with barely a whimper. The memory, for some, was still vivid. Korey Smith, tearful that day of relegation, was injured so missed the promotion game. Of the others, only Gary Doherty, Darel Russell and Simon Lappin, as well as sub Cody McDonald, appeared on both team sheets.
Lambert had made changes. Lots of them.
Fraser Forster was a beast in goal and his one-man show at The Valley played a huge part in City’s win.
Nelson, Doherty, Michael Spillane and Adam Drury formed a solid defensive line behind Martin, Darel Russell, Stephen Hughes and Lappin, with Chris Martin and Oli Johnson up front. No Holt (suspended), no Hoolahan (injured).
Doherty, Hoolahan, Russell and Lappin had all come back in from the cold under Lambert and all grabbed their chance. There was a Lambert way of doing things: take this from the report of a decade ago: “Lambert rarely talks of individuals and most certainly doesn’t single out players for criticism. If there’s blame, it’s almost always apportioned to the team as a whole. Instead of naming and shaming a particular a player, he says “we”, as he did instead of blaming Nelson for the Leyton Orient winner last Tuesday.
“Why is that important? Because Michael Nelson then goes into the match at Charlton on Saturday knowing his manager has been loyal, protective, trusting. And he plays a blinder.”
Overshadowing them all was Forster, who twice in the first half denied Nicky Bailey, one scooped, one-handed save from Deon Burton in the second was magnificent.
For Nelson there was extra joy, given he’d featured in the day one disaster, his debut as a Norwich City player.
“Obviously it’s been a long time since the first day of the season, but I think it just goes to show that you have got to be patient,” he said. “Some supporters didn’t give us any hope after 45 minutes of the first game and here we are, three games left and we can just sit back and relax and enjoy the last three games. The lads who played, the lads who didn’t play, no one was happy. Anyone who was involved with Norwich City on the first day of the season wasn’t happy, and we’ve made sure that we’ve put that right.”
When Lambert took his seat at the post-match press conference, the irony of his situation didn’t escape him.
“I bet you this was some press conference a year ago when Norwich had just got relegated,” he said.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since that day, but he deserves that final word.