A bigger win than Ipswich
Come the end of each year – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – there’s always a handful of games you look back upon as pivotal results.
But they don’t come any more season-defining than Saturday’s victory at Bolton.
As individual regular-fixture wins go this is right up there with the triumphs over Ipswich and Colchester.
In fact, take the significance of the opposition away from those three games and this one is actually much, much bigger.
The others might have been memorable displays, but this was a truly memorable result – and not just because it gets the ‘Norwich City can’t win away from home in the Premier League’ monkey off our backs after a mere 6,118 days.
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To keep our survival hopes alive we had to beat at least one of Bolton and Sunderland or risk this season turning into a repeat of the frustrations endured in 2004/5.
Imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t won on Saturday – if that late header by David Ngog had somehow found its way into the far corner instead of being turned away by John Ruddy?
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With Swansea finally winning – and doesn’t their weekend result put our game against West Brom into a new perspective? – the pressure on us to beat Sunderland next week would have become simply immense.
And if we didn’t; well, since all but the most optimistic of City followers must expect Old Trafford on October 1 to be a ‘keep the margin respectable’ sort of afternoon, we’d then surely have gone into another international break still chasing that elusive first victory.
And then come out of it with a home match against Swansea, which, if we still couldn’t win, would leave an awful lot more people than the Mark Lawrensons or Alan Shearers of this world writing off our chances with the small matter of 30 matches still to be played.
The one away fixture that stands out for me last time around in the Premier League was when, in October, we went to a poor West Brom and drew 0-0 on a day when I felt that if we’d been a bit more adventurous and focused we could have won.
This season, Saturday apart, there aren’t many obvious winnable away league games we could target – Sunderland, Swansea, Fulham and Blackburn maybe – and nothing this side of Christmas now.
So, on hearing the teams being announced at the Reebok Stadium I did rather think back to The Hawthorns and envisage another playing-for-a-point type of occasion.
Not a bit of it.
With Wes Hoolahan and David Fox restored we showed a great deal more creativity and possession in midfield than against West Brom, while Steve Morison presumably got the nod up front because of his greater mobility.
It wasn’t always pretty, we didn’t enjoy any kind of amount of clear-cut chances and we had to hang on a bit in the closing stages, but ultimately you can’t fault the game plan at all because we got the result that matters. It was the sort of tactical away nous which we lacked seven seasons ago and for which we eventually paid the ultimate price.
We targeted a defence particularly weak in some areas, while, for all their greater possession after their half-time changes, Bolton could not get in behind ours enough.
Our season starts now: we’re nine fixtures up on seven years ago, having had to wait until our 14th game to get our first victory on the board. In short, 35 points from 33 games has to be the target now.
And if we had to win one and lose one of our last two games we may just have done it in the right order.
Had we beaten West Brom and been defeated on Saturday we’d be wondering whether a club who were so effective on their travels during the past two seasons had totally lost their touch on the road.
Whereas now we know that City are capable of going to places and getting the right sort of result, while, at the same time, it has been clearly demonstrated that the approach against West Brom simply wasn’t good enough and if it’s repeated against the likes of Sunderland we’ll suffer the same fate.
• ONE OPINION FOR US, ONE OPINION FOR SOMEONE ELSE, CHAPS?
Do I detect just the slightest bit of double standards about the reaction to how some refereeing decisions affect the newly-promoted clubs?
Take, for example, incidents involving Steven Reid and Fernando Torres and the general media response seems to have been: “Well, this is what you’ve got to expect when you step up to play with the big boys, you know. Players also do have the right to go down.”
Then you get the Marc Tierney-Ivan Klasnic clash – and I use the word in its loosest possible sense here – and what’s the general reaction?
Well, it’s perhaps best summed up by the wise words of Mark Lawrenson on Match of the Day: “If he [Tierney] sees that on the telly tonight he’s got to have a look at himself or his manager’s got to say to him, ‘Look, you just can’t throw yourself on the floor’.”
I don’t necessarily want to see my team play like this, but if that’s want it takes to compete at this level then that’s the way it’s got to be.
Mind, having seen the highlights you have to wonder if we’d had any of our previous referees in charge on Saturday whether they’d have sent Leon Barnett off.
In real time, and from the away end, it just looked clumsy, but from the never-ending array of television replays you’re left to think it could have been a whole lot worse.
Still, even then all of above only begins to even up the score for what’s gone against us in the previous four games of this season.
When other teams play entirely fair, then so can we. End of.
However, we still have a bit to learn. When Anthony Pilkington was substituted during the second half on Saturday he almost broke into a trot. That’s simply not the done thing in the Premier League.
• IT’S A LONG WAY FROM THE BESCOT
I always remember the night we won at Walsall in January 2010.
Not just because of a fighting late comeback with goals from Chris Martin and Cody McDonald, but also since barely eight miles away Wolves were at home to Liverpool at a sold-out Molineux.
As I looked around a half-full Bescot Stadium, although there did seem far fewer people there than the official attendance figure of 5,022, I did really wonder: “We should really be up the road. Has it sunk to this? Is this what we’re going to have to get used to unless we can make an immediate escape from what is actually the Third Division?”
Well, the boot was most firmly on the other foot on Saturday.
We visit the Reebok Stadium for a high-profile game, even allowing for the six or seven thousand empty seats, highlights and reports of which are all over television and the national press.
Meanwhile, some 20 miles away, just further along the M60, Charlton – you might remember them, they were once seen as our role models – were visiting Rochdale in front of 2,909 hardy souls. The last time we played in front of a league crowd like that was at Carlisle in 1985 and at a time of more depressed football attendances. There were bigger gates in the Blue Square Premier League than that on Saturday.
But for a few courageous decisions over the course of the past couple of years that could so easily have been us still stuck in League One.
• RECORD INTACT
So, after Saturday’s win at least there can be no doubt now that Norwich have never lost back-to-back-to-back league matches under Paul Lambert.
If we can maintain that record for the rest of this season or at least lost it during next May and into the start of the 2012/13 campaign it will go a long way to guaranteeing our survival.