No rest for Norwich City until the job is done
Chris Lakey Norwich City 2, Oldham 0: Paul Lambert didn't actually answer the question 'will you give your players a day off?' as he contemplated a rare week without a Tuesday night fixture.
Paul Lambert didn't actually answer the question “will you give your players a day off?” as he contemplated a rare week without a Tuesday night fixture.
The response was just a smile and the raising of eyebrows - which is manager-speak for “you just be kidding”.
City players will get their usual days off this week before a Friday trip to Yeovil: like the rest of us, they will have to squeeze the Christmas shopping between work hours.
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The point is that City got where they are now by hard work, so why stop it now? The job isn't done yet - the halfway mark of the season is just a few games away, although it seems we've been through an awful lot since the opening day.
When Lambert came in something was broken so he fixed it: now it's working pretty well, so there's no need for more tinkering, no need to try giving players the carrot of a rest day here and there.
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Besides, there's work to do, fine-tuning bits of the machinery which can go wrong if they're not properly maintained. Like a favourite armchair, things can sometimes get a bit too comfortable if you start to lose concentration, as City proved on Saturday; having cruised through the game they almost had the stuffing knocked out of them by a couple of late scares which, but for the solid presence of goalkeeper Fraser Forster, might have cost them points.
It would have been embarrassing to have come away with anything but a full house of three points and a clean sheet after a match City had dominated from the start to make it six home wins in a row.
Grant Holt, Wes Hoolahan, Darel Russell and Adam Drury - who felled Sean Gregan with his effort - all had sighters of the Oldham goal before City took the lead after 21 minutes of almost exclusive possession. It began with a free-kick for offside, on-loan right back Russell Martin playing a ball down the right flank for Chris Martin, who watched it come past him and then, with his only touch, put in a cross which keeper Darryl Flahavan didn't fancy but must have thought was too difficult for Holt to reach. The ball bounced in front of Flahavan and to Holt's right, but somehow the City man judged the bounced perfectly, caught the ball on the rise and headed it into the top corner.
It was a quality finish from a quality player, taking his tally for the season to 19 in all competitions and prompting all sorts of questions involving various goalscorers from the past and their records. Names like Hugh Curran, Terry Allcock, Terry Bly and Ted MacDougall came up - club legends each and every one.
Holt is fast writing his name into the history books, but this really is a team effort: as he acknowledged afterwards, his job as skipper is a pretty easy one at the moment.
Wes Hoolahan simplifies things, if only because at times no one can touch him. But he too needs Korey Smith, Simon Lappin and Darel Russell to do some of the donkey work for him. All three did well on Saturday, beating the Christmas crowd that was Oldham's midfield to erect a force field in front of a defence which hardly broke sweat until the latter stages. Left-back Drury spent as much time attacking as he did defending - both of which he is doing extremely well at the moment.
Hoolahan gets a free rein because of those players, and 11 minutes after Holt scored, he was at it again, notching his 11th of the season with a goal that started with a free-kick - against him.
Having fouled Joe Colbeck he regained possession when Oldham fluffed the kick, and then sent Martin down the left flank with a superb crossfield pass. Martin gave it to Drury whose cross was missed by a trio of defenders, ending up with Hoolahan, who had sped from midway in his own half to midway into Oldham's penalty area. There was still work to do, as Hoolahan, who had already seen a headed effort - yes, a headed effort - go narrowly wide, cut inside of Colbeck and blasted a left-footer into the top corner, Gregan's little deflection possibly making no difference to the ball's final destination.
Russell showed the work ethic when Colbeck nicked a pass off his toe and hared down the right: the City man chased, caught and dispossessed his opponent before clearing. It may have had little consequence to the outcome, but in the greater scheme of things it exemplifies what the side is about. Russell could have sat out parts of the first half, but Oldham's resolve increased after the break, even though their ambitions rarely did; with the half only four minutes old they took off their only striker and brought on Keigan Parker.
“We only want one shot”, sang the excellent Oldham fans. City had a few more, but Flahavan - whose bright orange gear suggested he was ready to put traffic cones around his six-yard box if necessary - was not to be beaten again. Gregan - or rather his unmentionables - denied Martin, blocking the City man's shot and then requiring treatment for the subsequent damage which would have brought tears to the eyes of 49pc of the population.
Drury suffered damage of his own soon after, but there was something much more sinister about Parker's challenge which left the City man holding his face. TV replays suggested the point of the elbow caught Drury in an area which has troubled him in the past: no wonder he wasn't happy about the challenge.
Parker was on the halfway line by the time referee David Phillips arrived on the scene - the distance covered usually a sure sign of guilt.
Within a couple of minutes Parker had Oldham's first real chance, finding a gap to chase a long ball, but coming up against a keeper who stood tall and got enough on the shot to deflect it wide, possibly off the underside of his arm.
But while Parker may have been crafty, there was nothing sly or underhand about the Gregan-Holt head-to-head.
This was full-blooded, old-style English football, there for all to see. Gregan earned a yellow for one tackle from behind, while his interaction with the crowd is hardly repeatable: but it was an interesting cameo.
Hoolahan left to a standing ovation, giving Anthony McNamee his debut, but City fans were almost silenced when Kelvin Lomax's cross into the home area was nodded down for Danny Whitaker whose shot from close range was heading for the bottom corner until Forster got his considerable frame down and palmed it away with his left hand.
With four minutes to go it would have made for a rousing finish, but City didn't deserve anything but the win, and Oldham didn't deserve anything at all.
The hard work starts again this morning.
t MATCH RATINGS
Fraser Forster 7
Had a quiet afternoon until the closing stages, when he produced two saves, the second superb, that kept a clean sheet.
Russell Martin 7
Looks comfortable and will get better with time: lovely ball down the line to Chris Martin to set up the opener for Holt.
Gary Doherty 7
Didn't have much to do, but did it well. Perhaps slackened off when Parker got through at the end, but a very easy afternoon.
Jens Berthel Askou 7
Ditto: when it came his way he generally stopped it going any further, which is job done.
Adam Drury 8
Pick of the back four: defensively as good as ever, but attacking wise was different class, pinging in some quality crosses.
Korey Smith 7
Menaced the Oldham defence with his constant surges forward - where does he get his energy from?
Darel Russell 7
Just about immaculate, although it was a fairly comfortable afternoon - at least, he made it look that way. Top player.
Simon Lappin 7
His sort of game - had the space to deliver some good balls in, and showed an appetite for mixing it as well.
Wes Hoolahan 8
Where do you start? Scored a cracking goal, which he started and finished. Oldham couldn't touch him.
Chris Martin 7
Really beginning to look the part and is clearly learning all the time - a performance that deserved to be marked with a goal.
Grant Holt 8
Took his goal really well: it was a difficult header. Might have had more, but his battle with Gregan was excellent.
Luke Daley (for Martin, 78): Lively. Pace kept Oldham pegged back.
Anthony McNamee (for Hoolahan, 82): Not long enough to assess.
t MAN OF THE MATCH
Norwich: Holt (21), Hoolahan (32)
David Phillips (West Sussex) 6
Oldham: Furman (encroaching, 27), Gregan (foul on Holt, 79)
t TIME ADDED
3 mins / 4 mins
t MATCH STATS
Norwich: 7, Oldham 3
Norwich: 8, Oldham 2
Norwich: 10, Oldham 12
Norwich: 10, Oldham 1
Norwich: 4, Oldham 2