Hoolahan spot on as Norwich City hit back

NORWICH CITY 4, SHEFFIELD UNITED 2: It was little more than a fortnight ago that Norwich City boss Paul Lambert reacted to his side’s fourth home defeat of the season with the prediction: “We will play a lot worse than that and win games, that’s for sure.”

He probably did not expect to be proved right as quickly as the very next home match but it could be argued that the Canaries performed rather better for long spells against Portsmouth before succumbing to two late goals than they did against Sheffield United yesterday, when they twice came from behind to win a match that was full of incident and full of goals but at times short on quality.

The 4-2 score burning brightly through the mist and drizzle on the scoreboard sent most of those in another packed house home from Carrow Road in very festive mood, after watching their side reach the halfway stage of the Championship season in fifth place, just one point behind second spot.

But, with less than half an hour to go, that kind of scoreline looked a distant prospect as City struggled to find the cohesion to match their usual battling qualities.

In the end it took a cool head from substitute Wes Hoolahan, made to wait until half-time for his 100th first team outing for the club before replacing striker Simeon Jackson, and one controversial refereeing decision by Kent official Phil Crossley to turn the tide in the final third of the match.

Hoolahan delivered a hat-trick that comprised two penalties – the first of them a generous award by Mr Crossley as skipper Grant Holt went down under challenge from opposing captain Nick Montgomery – and a simple tap-in that was scored almost seven minutes into time added on, a late finish made necessary by a fracas involving players on both sides that left City defender Russell Martin counting his teeth and Blades midfielder Stephen Quinn counting the cost of an alleged assault when he was shown the red card – the sixth dismissal in the last nine games involving the Canaries.

United’s acting manager, John Carver, argued that as many as six big decisions had gone against his side, notably the first Norwich penalty in the 64th minute and, in the first half, the challenge by Michael Nelson on ex-Canary loan striker Ched Evans that was deemed a foul by Evans when it might just as easily have been a spot-kick.

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Carver laboured the point about the injustice heaped on his team but his argument did have some merit.

Not that all the luck was one way. As early as the third minute there was a narrow escape for United when defender Nyron Nosworthy diverted a cross from Holt on to his own post and away to safety.

United threatened first after 13 minutes when Mark Yeates, given rather too much space by City’s revamped three-man central defence, pulled a left-foot shot wide of the target, and four minutes later they were ahead.

Jens Berthel Askou, in the starting line-up for only the third time this season, was penalised after tangling with Evans on the edge of the Norwich area and, from the free-kick, Andy Reid stepped up to curl a perfect left-foot shot out of goalkeeper John Ruddy’s reach.

City were level inside two minutes, however, when defender Nelson scored his second goal of the season, also from a free-kick, awarded for a foul on Chris Martin. David Fox floated in the dead-ball kick from the right and Nelson rose unmarked to power a header past goalkeeper Steve Simonsen.

United should have regained the lead immediately when Russell Martin produced a last-ditch challenge to deny Evans after he had given the ball away on the edge of the penalty area.

It was 2-1, however, in the 29th minute with the simplest of goals from Richard Cresswell. Yeates dummied Quinn’s pass and Cresswell had ample time to swivel and fire a right-foot shot inside the post.

Four minutes before the break, United felt they should have been given the chance to make it 3-1, appealing for a penalty as Evans went down under challenge from Nelson but Evans was instead penalised for a foul.

It took a double change to spark City’s revival with Hoolahan sent on at the interval and Anthony McNamee replacing Fox after 62 minutes.

Two minutes later, City were level when Holt went down under challenge from Montgomery and referee Crossley pointed to the spot. It appeared a harsh decision – Montgomery was shown the yellow card – but Hoolahan tucked away the spot-kick left-footed.

It was then anybody’s game and both goalkeepers were tested. Evans almost caught out Ruddy with an audacious effort from the halfway line, then Simonsen saved from Chris Martin after Nelson had knocked on Askou’s free-kick.

Evans fired another effort into the crowd as United looked for a winner, but it was the Canaries who instead nudged ahead with six minutes left.

Kyle Bartley was the man penalised for handball as Korey Smith attempted a one-two just inside the United area, and Hoolahan stepped up to score coolly once more, before being booked for his celebration.

There was one final change for City when defender Zak Whitbread – sidelined by calf and hamstring problems since the summer – made his first appearance of the season in place of McNamee and, in the final minute, further controversy when Nelson protested about a bad challenge that left him on the floor.

Four minutes of added time were announced, but more than seven minutes were played as tempers boiled over and, after a further clash between players on both sides, Quinn was shown the red card.

Still there was time for Ruddy to make an excellent save from Evans to preserve City’s lead, and finally for Holt to break free on the left and set up Hoolahan for the tap-in that completed his hat-trick.

The Canaries can look forward to facing the Championship’s top two in their next two home games, but are unlikely to get away with quite such a patchy performance.