Norwich City in sight of yet another record
Chris Lakey Oldham Athletic 0, Norwich City 1: Norwich City are closing in on a club record after taking another step towards an instant return to the Championship.
Oldham Athletic 0, Norwich City 1
Norwich City are closing in on a club record after taking another step towards an instant return to the Championship.
City's away wins column has only ever run into double figures once in its history - in the 2003-04 promotion season when 10 wins were recorded away from Carrow Road.
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The away record - no matter how long the season - had become something of a joke: City were renowned as easy pickings away from Norfolk. The year after promotion they went through an entire Premier League season without an away win. Last season it was almost as dreadful: just three wins on their travels.
Nowadays, City are made of much sterner stuff and, with nine away victories tucked firmly into their man-bags, they're ready to replicate, even better, the deeds of the Division One title winners.
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With another half-a-dozen away trips to come, Paul Lambert's team could be about to go at least one better. It won't be easy - the SatNav will be set to Huddersfield, Swindon, Tranmere, Leyton Orient, Charlton and Bristol Rovers over the next couple of months.
A five-point lead with 12 games remaining is a very comfortable place to be, so if City do break the record, then it is almost certain that they will be promoted automatically.
Would you bet on it? Why not? After watching them claim the three points at Oldham on Saturday it's hard to see how they can be beaten.
It wasn't spectacular, it wasn't the sort of match which will ever become the basis for a book on total football.
It was a better performance of late, with lots of promise for the coming weeks - enough to placate those worriers whose criticism has so clearly irked Lambert.
But this is what Norwich City do: they play to their strengths, work their socks off and then, when the chance to win a game comes along, they take it. Grant Holt did that on 53 minutes and it was game over.
Even the late frights were just part of the script, just what you'd expect from a home team desperate for a win. It wasn't a surprise that Oldham almost scored - it was even less surprising that Norwich prevented them. You don't have a good goalkeeper by accident and you don't stick a man on the post at a corner just for a laugh.
The fact that said goalkeeper is Fraser Forster does help: the Geordie is a big presence in more ways than one. On Saturday, Gary Doherty and Michael Nelson were rarely beaten at the heart of City's defence - but their confidence in handling Jason Price and the talented Pawel Abbott stemmed in part from Forster's presence and the knowledge that the yellow and green house was pretty well secure.
Base you team on the premise that the back four is as tight as a duck's, then the rest of the job becomes a little easier. Darel Russell's absence put pressure on the midfielders, but Korey Smith, in particular, takes opportunities like that in his stride, which is why he is such a favourite of the manager. Smith has matured greatly since Lambert spotted him on the training field at Colney in his first week in charge and thought, 'why not'? He assumed control pretty quickly at Boundary Park, moved the ball quickly and well, spread the play and brought others into the game.
It helped City have plenty of possession, and if first-half chances in particular had been turned into goals, then they might have been out of sight by half-time against a side which is clearly feeling the pressure, as the supporters proved at full-time when they called for the head of Dave Penney to roll.
Holt saw a header disallowed for offside early on and slid a shot past the far post after some lovely footwork by Hoolahan, playing just behind the big striker, with Chris Martin on the right and Anthony McNamee on the left.
McNamee's ability to put in a variety of crosses - low, hard, curled, whipped, high - has defences struggling and perhaps City fans were justifiably wondering why City's first-half superiority hadn't brought at least a single-goal lead.
Eight minutes into the second half, they got what they wanted: Hoolahan clipped a smashing ball down the left channel for McNamee, whose cross went over Chris Martin's head but landed perfectly for Holt to slide in and smash into the top of the net.
It might have been the opening of a floodgate, but Oldham are fighting for their lives.
City soaked up a bit of pressure and, with more expected, Lambert made the midfield look a little more solid by giving Hoolahan a rest and bringing on Stephen Hughes - 10 minutes before McNamee was replaced by Michael Spillane, which enabled Russell Martin to go into the middle. It gave City more of a solid look - and with Oli Johnson on for Chris Martin there was still enough up front to take advantage should the hosts throw too much into attack.
The frights came and went as City did their jobs - Forster got down low to his left to prevent Keigan Parker from equalising and moments later Smith cleared Reuben Hazell's header off the line.
That was as close as a dejected looking Oldham side came, and City could have added to their tally as Holt and Johnson moved almost at will. But there were some tired legs on both sides: Holt had worked his fingers to the bone, but his old adversary, Sean Gregan, was struggling to keep up with him.
It was a great football battle there, but one that Holt deserved to win, if only because he epitomises what is good and successful about this Norwich City team. Holt is a battler who looks like he's one of the game's artisans, but is in fact a player possessed of a quality finish.
He doesn't rack up 20 goals a season because he's on the goal-line ready to benefit from someone else's hard work: he is a team player. One of 11, neatly moulded together, who fit into the plan.
Home or away.