Deadly duo show touch of class

David Cuffley Norwich City 4, Gillingham 1: The Football League Cup in its various guises has traditionally had a special significance for Norwich City fans, for some of the club's most memorable matches have come in the nation's number two knockout competition.

David Cuffley

Norwich City 4, Gillingham 1

The Football League Cup in its various guises has traditionally had a special significance for Norwich City fans, for some of the club's most memorable matches have come in the nation's number two knockout competition.

The fogbound battle with Chelsea, epic semi-final meetings with Manchester United and Ipswich and three Wembley appearances all rank as major episodes in the Canaries' history.

But those classic encounters have become something of a distant memory over the past decade or so, when successive managers have tended to view the competition as a bit of an encumbrance, despite its potential for the odd decent pay day and the occasional tremor of excitement at facing top Premier League opposition.

The fact that City have not reached the last eight since 1996 sums up that ambivalence, but there was just a hint of the old magic as Paul Lambert's men swept to an ultimately comfortable first round victory against Gillingham with virtually a full-strength side and attracted the second biggest Carling Cup gate of the night, bettered only by the numbers watching the South Coast battle between Southampton and Bournemouth.

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An attractive home tie against a top seed in tonight's second round draw, or an East Anglian derby with Ipswich, might further re-ignite interest in the competition, and with seven Championship sides already out, there may even be room for City to do more than merely fulfil their obligations in the opening two rounds.

The return of skipper Grant Holt to the starting line-up after a thigh injury suggested City meant business and two of last season's midfield fixtures, Korey Smith and Simon Lappin, recalled to the side, were every bit as effective as those they replaced from the Championship defeat by Watford four days earlier.

The hosts started brightly but one feared a trickle of needless yellow cards when midfielder David Fox was booked by referee Andy D'Urso in only the fifth minute for taking a free-kick too quickly. When it was retaken, Fox struck the post with a curling shot.

But there was a shock for the Canaries in the 11th minute when Chris Palmer fired Gillingham ahead. Danny Spiller burst into the penalty area on the left side and tangled with Michael Nelson, who appeared to handle after tumbling to the floor, but Palmer followed up to strike a first-time shot past 'keeper John Ruddy and inside the post.

Apart from a Korey Smith shot that was blocked by Josh Gowling, City briefly lost that early spark and it was very nearly 2-0 in the 24th minute when Spiller curled in a free-kick from the left touchline and Adebayo Akinfenwa headed against the crossbar with the defence flat-footed and Ruddy caught in two minds.

The Canaries drew level two minutes later, however, when Chris Martin scored his first goal of the season.

Holt produced a delightful chip into Martin's path and he escaped the attentions of Gills skipper Mark Bentley to fire past goalkeeper Alan Julian.

Wes Hoolahan was close to giving City the lead when he fired across the face of the goal after Fox got his head to a corner, but it was soon 2-1 when Holt headed his first of the season. Smith sent Russell Martin away on the right and the full-back's cross was met with a firm header by Holt as he lost Bentley at the near post.

A foul by Luke Rooney on Lappin gave City a free-kick six minutes before the break and Chris Martin struck the crossbar with the 'keeper beaten.

But Akinfenwa missed a golden chance to equalise one minute later when Ruddy made a fine save from Jack Payne's powerful shot but from the rebound, the big striker headed wide of an empty net. It was the 18-year-old Payne's last involvement in the game as he limped off to be replaced by Kevin Maher.

The Gills seldom threatened as seriously after the break and the game was effectively over when Holt made it 3-1 after 55 minutes with a beautifully worked goal. Russell Martin, Holt and Hoolahan were all involved and the ball was fed back to Smith, whose cross to the near post was met on the volley by Holt for a fine sidefoot finish.

His job done, Holt made way for Oli Johnson after 64 minutes to a fine ovation from the home crowd.

Ruddy had to make another important save two minutes later when Akinfenwa set up Rooney for a snapshot that the 'keeper did well to push away.

But it was very much City's night after that and Martin came close to scoring his second in the 79th minute. Maher was adjudged to have tripped Hoolahan and Martin curled the free-kick round the wall, but Julian leapt to his left to push the shot away.

Tony Sinclair earned a booking five minutes from time when he brought down Chris Martin a few yards outside the Gillingham area, but substitute Anthony McNamee curled the free-kick wide.

However, Martin wrapped up victory in stoppage time with a typically cool finish, rounding Julian and tucking the ball home after Johnson got the better of Gowling.