If Norwich City can hold their nerve, then who knows?
Every landmark season in Norwich City’s history has produced one of those days when the dream begins to look more and more like a reality – a defining moment when supporters realise that yes, this might just be our year.
Fans leaving the Walkers Stadium on Tuesday night may have had that feeling after watching Paul Lambert’s team almost cruise to their eighth away win of the Championship campaign.
Yes, Paul Gallagher’s late goal for Leicester City meant that, at face value, the 3-2 scoreline suggested a close contest between two promotion rivals. But it was nothing of the sort.
For those with long memories, it was a demolition job that reminded one of the 4-1 hammering meted out by Ken Brown’s promotion-winning Canaries to Leicester nearly three decades ago, just a few hundred yards away at their former Filbert Street home.
Time and again this season we have wondered how long City could maintain this extraordinary form on their travels, and time and again they have confounded our doubts and fears, however slight or illogical.
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Since losing at Cardiff at the end of October, they have won five, drawn five and lost just one of their 11 away games, meeting each challenge head on and – apart from conceding a relatively late goal at Burnley – adding to their points tally in the process. What may have seemed like the sternest of tests at the time, for example the games at Reading, at Derby or at Leeds, were all passed with flying colours.
But the Foxes had not lost a home match in the Championship since the visit of leaders Queens Park Rangers in September, had not lost a league game on their own ground under their former England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, and surely this would be the biggest test yet?
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However, after a relatively even first half, Eriksson’s sprinkling of star names and loan imports from the Premier League were made to look second rate by another complete team performance as the Canaries took control with two early second-half goals and, in truth, could have had a couple more before Gallagher’s consolation effort from a free-kick.
It was a classic illustration of how good recruitment, excellent coaching, teamwork and organisation is worth more than all the so-called stars foreign investment money can buy, or in many cases, borrow.
Which is why the clamour from some supporters for Lambert to go out and bring in a big name to help “push us over the line” in the next few weeks may be misplaced.
Yakubu and Darius Vassell may be names that will excite fans and put a few more on the gate each week, but on the evidence of Tuesday night’s match, City are better off without them.
The Nigerian international and the former England World Cup striker were put well and truly in the shade by the performance of Grant Holt, Wes Hoolahan and Aaron Wilbraham.
While these are, admittedly, three of the more experienced members of the City squad in terms of age and Football League appearances, one of the keys to Lambert’s success over the past 18 months has been the knack of signing players who are still on the up or approaching their peak years – not those whose best days are behind them. Players such as John Ruddy, Russell Martin, Leon Barnett, Andrew Crofts, David Fox, Elliott Ward and Zak Whitbread, all in the mid-20s bracket, have the time and potential to keep improving and if City should make it into the top flight, they could all have a role to play.
The big question, with 10 games to go, is whether the Canaries can make that dream into a reality.
The remarkable thing about their season so far is that while every club involved in the promotion race has had a wobble at some stage – even Queens Park Rangers lost three games out of five over Christmas and New Year – City have not really stumbled. They have had plenty of draws, including four in a row in November, but have yet to lose two successive games.
This is a team that has held its nerve time and again and has quickly put the odd below-par performance behind them, and if they prove as reliable over the final 10 matches, they have as good a chance as anyone of promotion, whether or not the leaders face a points deduction.
• DEFINING MOMENTS
• Norwich 5, Blackpool 1 (March 25, 1972): The promotion challenge of Ron Saunders’ team had begun to wobble with just one win in eight Division Two matches, but they came storming back with a memorable win over Blackpool and were 4-1 up at half-time. Graham Paddon scored twice in a one-sided affair. The Canaries were beaten only once in eight games after that as they became champions.
• Manchester Utd 1, Norwich 1 (March 15, 1975): Ted MacDougall scored for the fourth time against his old club in the same season, conjuring up a vital equaliser, and bargain signing Martin Peters made his City debut in front of 56,202 at Old Trafford – not a bad gate for Division Two. City won six of the next eight games to clinch promotion.
• Leicester 1, Norwich 4 (May 1, 1982): Ken Brown’s Canaries demolished one of their main Division Two promotion rivals to record their eighth win in nine matches en route to snatching the third promotion place with a late charge that blew the rest away, Leicester included.
• Norwich 6, Millwall 1 (December 21, 1985): City celebrated going top of Division Two a week earlier by storming into a 4-0 half-time lead at Carrow Road. No one could live with them after that, least of all Millwall ’keeper Granville, whose goal was open all hours.
• Ipswich 0, Norwich 2 (December 21, 2003): The victory that launched 1,000 car stickers proclaiming “Top of the league at Portman Road”. After Leon McKenzie’s debut double, there was seldom any doubt who would be crowned Nationwide League champions.