City could make most of promotion yips

PUBLISHED: 13:00 22 March 2006 | UPDATED: 09:18 14 September 2010

RICK WAGHORN

For me, the team to keep your eye on is Wolves. Seven points away from the top six with just seven games to play, Norwich City know that it has to be win, win, win from here on in.

Championship Chat with Rick Waghorn

For me, the team to keep your eye on is Wolves.

Seven points away from the top six with just seven games to play, Norwich City know that it has to be win, win, win from here on in. In every probability, nothing else will do.

Which, in one way, is quite a decent position to be in. You have nothing more to fear; nothing left to lose. Many punters have already vented their disappointment and frustration at the way this season has gone.

For them, everything that happens between now and the end of the season is a bonus - even if that means finishing in eighth or ninth spot, that is still a vast improvement on what many feared in the depths of winter.

Come out of Friday's trip to Burnley with a big away win and move just four points shy of Preston, albeit with two more games played, and City would at least get everyone else thinking come three o'clock on Saturday.

Even now, having pushed Leeds to a last minute equaliser and followed that up with a win over Sheffield United, there will be one or two old hands at Deepdale and Molineux casting an anxious glance towards Carrow Road as this big horse in yellow and green colours starts to motor up on the rails.

Because football folk are superstitious people and they know that every year someone, somehow pulls off a minor miracle and steals that final play-off spot. Leicester City did it under Martin O'Neill, Crystal Palace did it under Iain Dowie and, of course, Norwich did it themselves four years ago under Nigel Worthington. They have, to borrow a phrase, got “previous” for this sort of thing.

That's why no one in that little anxious huddle below Reading will be looking to finish third. That's what haunts Neil Warnock every night. That's what drives his snarling fury on - the sure and certain knowledge that to finish third after a season spent almost uniquely in the top two is to court psychological disaster in the dressing room, particularly if you then pile into a team that finishes the season heading north at a rapid rate of knots. It's all about momentum - who has the most wind in their sails in the last few fraught weeks of the season.

Wolves have been there. And it was Norwich who rubbed their noses in the dirt in 2002 through just that scenario. Players might have come and gone, but supporters and commentators haven't - they'll know the hoodoo signs if Wolves head for Norwich on the final weekend of the season with, say, just two points separating the two teams.

Of course, Preston are still floating about the place, but for me they have a real job on their hands. Go back to the footballers being superstitious bit and wonder to yourself what effect David Nugent's injury might have on the dressing room.

He scored two goals in the 3-1 home win over Ipswich that kept the Lilywhites bubbling along, only to be floored by a broken bone in his foot that ruled him out until the end of the season. Preston went to relegation-haunted Sheffield Wednesday four days later and, in the limpest of lame displays, went down 2-0. Who knows? Perhaps Nugent's exit will merely spur Preston on again. It might, however, do just the reverse and condemn them to finish in eighth place.

Which is why I'd keep my eyes fixed firmly on Wolves. To their credit, they came out of that tricky away trip to Reading with reputation intact and will surely head into their next three games with confidence intact.

And, on paper, the prospect of facing Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry City at home - with a trip to Plymouth sandwiched in between - doesn't look too daunting.

But at this stage of the season, that phrase “on paper” counts for very little. If - and it remains a familiar big “if” - Norwich can pull off another win at Burnley on Friday night, Wolves will know that one false move on Saturday will leave the Canaries just three points off their tail.

Yes, Preston could surge back. Yes, Cardiff are right there in the mix too. But it's a funny, funny time of year.

Even if Wolves come through those three games with, say, seven points in the bag, it is the next two games that will in all likelihood make or break their play-off challenge when they first play host to in-form Watford and then travel to Preston.

Because that's what makes Norwich's last two results so telling - they can no longer influence the almighty scrap for second spot and don't have to face Watford, Leeds or Sheffield United again. What is more, they almost took the full six points from the last two games.

If Wolves wobble in their next three games, the pressure could really be on. Yes, a home game with the potentially already-relegated Brighton might loom, but given that around the corner a trip to Norwich then awaits, Molineux will expect like never before when the Seagulls roll into town. That will be the pressure game - that's when one slip could prove fatal.

I don't know. So many ifs, buts and maybes. But given the way this season has already panned out, the safest thing is to expect the unexpected. Do that and I doubt you'll go too far wrong.

Sheffield United against Norwich in the play-off semi-finals, anyone? Boy, would that be fun.

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