Norwich City hopes burn as bright as ever

HULL CITY 1, NORWICH CITy 1: It was all “Tiger, Tiger” thundering out before kick-off as the eardrums of nearly 23,000 fans were subjected to a battering that might almost have rattled the frame of the Humber Bridge.

But long after this brief extract from Blake’s famous poem had faded away, it was Norwich City’s promotion ambitions that were burning bright in the fading light of an early spring evening.

Some 2,500 travelling Canary supporters headed home from the KC Stadium secure in the knowledge that their team was one point clear in second place in the Championship table going into the final eight games of the season, with a fortnight’s break in which to nurse their bumps and bruises and gird their loins for one of the most important months in the club’s history.

They could even have been three points clear of third-placed Swansea, as indeed they had started the day, but for at least one sound penalty claim waved away by referee Rob Shoebridge in the second half – yet as Hull City’s unfortunate James Harper had been guilty of one of the misses of the season in the opening period, there was not too much cause to look back in anger at the afternoon’s events.

Seven matches in the space of 29 days will more than likely determine whether Paul Lambert’s Canaries are to complete a second successive promotion without the need for the potential agonies of the play-offs – surely anything less than a top six finish is now unthinkable – and if April does not decide the issue, there is always the last day of the season to look forward to.

The tension may be truly unbearable by then, but City followers have had plenty of practice with so many late dramas this season, and it was not exactly a relaxed final quarter of an hour at Hull after 37-year-old Nick Barmby brought the hosts level at 1-1, soon after his introduction as a substitute.

Defender Zak Whitbread had celebrated his international call-up for the United States by heading City in front from David Fox’s free-kick – as goalkeeper Brad Guzan miscalculated his chances of getting there first – and, though Hull rallied in the closing stages of the opening half, Norwich looked good for their ninth away win of the season until the veteran Barmby’s arrival gave the home side fresh impetus in the final half-hour.

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The opening exchanges on a bare-looking surface were uneventful, with Wes Hoolahan having a 20-yard effort deflected wide and Elliott Ward making a splendid block on lively right-back Liam Rosenior. There were also half-hearted appeals for a Hull penalty when Matty Fryatt went down.

But the breakthrough came in the 27th minute as Fox floated a free-kick in from the left side and Whitbread beat the floundering Guzan with a well-directed header for his first goal for the club.

Hull could have drawn level when a ricochet off Ward left Fryatt in the clear but he was denied by a fine save by Ruddy, diving to his right. The Tigers then squandered a real opportunity when Aaron McLean tried to find the Invisible Man rather than shoot and, six minutes before the break, there was a nightmare moment for Harper as Rosenior’s cross into the six-yard box presented him with an open goal, but he managed to lift his shot over the bar.

Ruddy made another fine save from Andy Dawson’s free-kick to preserve City’s lead in first-half stoppage time.

Hull began the second half on the offensive but almost found themselves two goals down inside the hour as Fox, Henri Lansbury and Grant Holt combined to set up Hoolahan, but Guzan beat away his shot at the near post.

Barmby and Simon Lappin were introduced by their respective managers, and twice in as many minutes, the Canaries had penalty claims rejected.

First Dawson appeared to pull back Russell Martin – prompting an angry exchange between the two that the referee had to deal with – then the Hull skipper may have handled as Hoolahan tried to control a corner from Fox.

But Hull stepped up a gear and after Robert Koren had a shot diverted wide off his own team-mate, Fryatt, they levelled on 74 minutes.

Ward brought Koren’s progress to a juddering halt on the Norwich right, but Fryatt took possession and squared for Barmby to sidefoot a simple equaliser, setting up a storming finish.

Ruddy saved a long-range effort from Corry Evans, but it was the Canaries who nearly snatched the lead through their second substitute, Simeon Jackson. Hoolahan and Tierney combined to set up the Canadian, who turned on a sixpence before firing in a low shot that Guzan dived to his left to keep out.

Lansbury was agonisingly close to making it 2-1 with two minutes left when Holt flicked Tierney’s ball into the area and, knocked off balance, he poked a shot just the wrong side of the post.

At the other end, Ruddy impressed again by keeping out Barmby’s stinging effort, then diving to his left to push away a shot from substitute Tijani Belaid.

Fryatt fired across goal with another late chance after Ward suffered a knock and, at the other end, Hoolahan tried to wriggle through a forest of defenders before finally running out of options.

If City were disappointed to have to settle for a point after leading for so long, the consolation was that few of their rivals – only the biggest of all, Swansea – took advantage. April promises to be one of the most exciting months we have experienced.