Promotion is surely a matter of time
PUBLISHED: 07:00 29 March 2010 | UPDATED: 17:10 10 September 2010
Norwich City 1, leeds United 0: They think it's all over - they just don't want to admit it yet. Whisper it, but the team with the biggest lead in all four divisions in England have all but regained their Championship status.
They think it's all over … they just don't want to admit it yet.
Whisper it, but the team with the biggest lead in all four divisions in England have all but regained their Championship status.
Five more wins from the remaining eight games will seal it, but that's worst-case scenario and allows for one or two of the chasing pack playing like Manchester United or Chelsea to get anywhere near putting the frighteners on Paul Lambert's men.
What's left for City? Home games against bottom side Stockport on Monday then MK Dons, Gillingham and finally Carlisle, all of whom are struggling to find an interest in either a promotion or relegation issue. The away schedule is Tranmere on Friday, Leyton Orient, Charlton and Bristol Rovers.
It's easily doable - certainly for a team that trailed Leeds by 11 points when they lost there last October but now lead them by the same amount.
Lambert - nor anyone else in the City camp - isn't about to say goodbye to League One just yet, although admitting "we're in the mix" and "we've given ourselves a chance" is taking extra, extra care with the facts.
Which are: City have an 11-point lead over Leeds, who are listing badly and lead Millwall by a goal difference of just one.
City have come through the month of March pretty much unscathed: three wins and a draw at Swindon - after conceding in time added on - suggest arguably the most difficult part of the run-in has been dealt with in the usual highly efficient manner.
City's form is 12 wins, two defeats and a draw since the turn of the year.
Publicly, Lambert is being cautious, leaving the rest of us to debate the issue - although the way he reacted to Saturday's win did betray a few signs.
When substitute Chris Martin - dropped after 27 consecutive league starts - headed home with a minute left, Carrow Road went from being a heaving cauldron of noise to one that almost boiled over with elation. It stayed that way for the remaining few minutes, interspersed with some quizzical looks when Tresor Kandol achieved the unachievable, and was sent off without touching the ball within a minute of coming on. It was a farcical end to an absorbing, if otherwise uneventful, game.
When Lee Probert blew his whistle, Lambert joined his players on the pitch, hugging each and every one. Just as you do when you are celebrating something.
Just like encounter number one last year, the outcome wasn't settled until the end. And again, perhaps the best team lost.
City could comfortably have settled for a draw, but Lambert stuck to his attacking formation - a refreshing change to those who play percentages - and Leeds changed theirs to suit, stifling Wes Hoolahan in the process and thereby taking out one area which is usually guaranteed to spark something. Absorbing it was, because of high-profile nature of the game; a classic it wasn't.
City started like a train and it looked like Leeds' fragile confidence could be shattered. Presumably that was the plan. An early goal in City's favour could have caused untold damage. But it was perhaps the boot of centre-half Michael Nelson which put an end to that good start. He raised it, Luciano Becchio stooped, head and boot connected and the Leeds man was out cold before he hit the ground.
After five anxious minutes he was taken away on a stretcher - post-match reports suggest he was okay by the time he left the ground - but the momentum was gone.
From then on it was a long, hard slog, although City didn't help their cause by losing possession far too often. It was full-blooded, gutsy stuff, but defenders were quickly to the fore - and they stayed there. Grant Holt might have changed that just before half-time when he picked up the loose ball after Korey Smith's shot was blocked, but the City skipper skied his shot, and didn't really get another opportunity. Stephen Elliott, who had taken Martin's place, had one effort which he slashed wide, early in the second half.
Neither keeper was particularly busy, although Fraser Forster might have expected more than just a few long-range pot-shots. Becchio's replacement, Mike Grella, worked a terrific opportunity just before the hour mark, but having done the hard work he hit a powder-puff shot at Forster which rivalled the efforts of the half-time Crossbar Challenge for power and danger.
Beckford returned to the Leeds side after a hamstring injury, but there was always a suspicion that it was a risk by his manager Simon Grayson. Beckford looked out of sorts, although that shouldn't diminish Gary Doherty's performance. The City man worked him out early and kept him at arm's length with a really fine performance.
It was never a nasty game, but Holt got himself into the ref's bad books when he took out Robert Snodgrass, raising the ire of former City man Andy Hughes, who almost single-handedly turned a local dispute into World War III. Coincidentally, he'd been first on the scene when Nelson's boot and Becchio's face collided. Some things never change.
For all the bluster, it had draw written all over it - until Lambert's substitutions paid off. Again.
All three who came off the bench were involved in the goal - Anthony McNamee hooking it forward, Stephen Hughes taking it down the left after Holt had headed it on, and then putting in a cross which Martin adjusted himself to meet with his head from around six yards.
Not many managers can drop a 20-goal striker and get that sort of response.
Cue wild celebrations as everyone - Leeds fans included you assume - realised that it most likely is all over.
City saw out the remaining minutes, which is more than can be said for Kandol, who saw red for shoving Darel Russell.
Some substitutions work, some don't.