Hero Holt rides to rescue yet again
David Cuffley Norwich City 2, Stockport County 1: There is a tendency, especially when things are going well, for the second half of the football season to pass in the blink of an eye. Now, with six games to go, Paul Lambert's side lead the rest of the field by nine points and need a maximum of three wins to book an immediate return to the Championship. It is likely that two victories will be enough.
Norwich City 2, Stockport County 1
There is a tendency, especially when things are going well, for the second half of the football season to pass in the blink of an eye.
It seems barely a matter of days ago that Norwich City reached the halfway stage of the League One campaign with a 2-0 home win over Millwall on Boxing Day.
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At the time, they were still third in the table, eight points behind the leaders, Leeds United, who also had a game in hand, but the whiff of promotion was very definitely in the air.
In truth, it had been a reasonable bet since September made way for October and back-to-back home wins over Leyton Orient and Bristol Rovers brought nine goals, underlining that the Canaries had shrugged off their early-season hangover and were once again a force to be reckoned with under their new manager.
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Even defeat at Leeds did little to dispel the feeling that we were already watching the best team in the division.
Now, with six games to go, Paul Lambert's side lead the rest of the field by nine points and need a maximum of three wins to book an immediate return to the Championship. It is likely that two victories will be enough.
Strangely, with bottom-placed Stockport the Easter Monday visitors at Carrow Road, City did not always look like the runaway leaders they have become.
Perhaps we have become spoiled and expect perfection from a group of players who have carried all before them this season, but for much of the first half, the Canaries and Stockport did not look like sides who would be playing two divisions apart next season - if, that is, financially troubled Stockport are playing anywhere at all.
City were given the perfect start by Anthony McNamee's first goal for the club in less than three minutes, but endured a jittery period after Jabo Ibehre's 12th-minute equaliser, and were ultimately put back on the straight and narrow, for the umpteenth time, by skipper Grant Holt.
Holt's 25th-minute goal took him to 30 in all competitions this season, the first City player to reach that magic number since Ron Davies 46 years ago, when his 1963-64 haul included four goals in two games against Don Revie's Leeds, winners of the Division Two title that season.
From the moment Holt scored, City generally held the upper hand, without putting the kind of daylight between them and their visitors that would enable them to relax and turn on the style.
They first went ahead when McNamee, given his chance through injury to Wes Hoolahan but playing in an orthodox right-wing role, quickly made the most of his opportunity by gathering Holt's crossfield pass, jinking inside on to his left foot and curling a shot past 'keeper Owain Fon Williams, clad, incidentally, in blue sleeves rather than green.
Stockport flickered into life and Jemal Johnson forced goalkeeper Declan Rudd into action for the first time in the 11th minute. A minute later, the scores were level but no blame could be levelled at the 19-year-old Rudd.
A mistake by Zak Whitbread, making his first start for the Canaries, allowed Richie Partridge to get on the end of David Perkins' pass and get in a shot that Rudd managed to block, but the rebound fell to Ibehre, who guided the ball home. Jemal Johnson was twice just off target from long range as the Canaries struggled to assert themselves, and it was almost against the run of play when they regained the lead.
A free-kick awarded for handball on the right side of the penalty area was floated to the far post by McNamee, nodded back by Whitbread, and though his effort was kept out, Darel Russell managed to dig the ball out and feed it back to Holt, who sidefooted home through a crowd of players.
Russell fired narrowly over the top a minute later, while at the other end it took a timely challenge by Simon Lappin on George Donnelly to deny him the chance of an equaliser, but the real escape came for Stockport three minutes before the break.
Chris Martin put Holt clear on the left with a diagonal pass and looked certain to score from the skipper's return pass, but a challenge from Paul Huntington did just enough to impede him and his sidefoot effort came back off the post.
City dominated possession after the break but took nearly 20 minutes to create a clear chance - then two came in a minute.
First Holt nodded McNamee's cross into the path of Chris Martin, whose close-range effort was well blocked by Fon Williams. Then a McNamee cross to the far post was met by Lappin, sliding in, but at full stretch he sliced his shot wide.
In a rare Stockport raid, Rudd made a timely save from Donnelly, who appeared to foul Whitbread as he broke away in search of an equaliser.
Chris Martin was out of luck again midway through the half when Adam Drury found him in space and his shot from a tight angle clipped the inside of the post, via a touch from Fon Williams, with Holt just unable to knock in the rebound as Danny Swailes stopped his follow-up effort on the line.
Both sides made the usual flurry of changes in the closing stages but Stockport never really threatened to deny the Canaries their 16th home victory of the season - and their 15th in the past 16 games at Carrow Road. Small wonder they are close to clinching promotion.