Norwich City pass the biggest test of all
David Cuffley Charlton Athletic 0, Norwich City 1: Norwich City's ability to pass the biggest tests of all with flying colours has been a feature of their promotion-winning campaign - and never was it better illustrated than at The Valley.
Charlton Athletic 0, Norwich City 1
Norwich City's ability to pass the biggest tests of all with flying colours has been a feature of their promotion-winning campaign - and never was it better illustrated than at The Valley.
Even in League One, a level to which the Canaries should never really have dropped - though the fall from grace was very much self-inflicted - there are still perhaps half a dozen fixtures that make the hair stand up on the back of one's neck.
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They are the games that sort the men from the boys.
And on nearly every such occasion this season, the team rescued by Paul Lambert from humiliation and despair in August, in the wake of the heaviest home defeat in club history, has risen manfully to the challenge.
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Even in defeat at Elland Road in October, there was a feeling that here was a City team strong and talented enough to make a serious challenge for promotion.
That suspicion was confirmed not only by a record-breaking run of 11 consecutive home victories but by the way they shaped up to the toughest away trips - a 2-2 draw at Southampton, the 5-0 demolition of Colchester in their grudge rematch, the 3-1 win at Huddersfield that ended the Yorkshire club's unbeaten home record and a 1-1 draw at Swindon that would have been another notable victory over promotion rivals but for a goal conceded in stoppage time.
Then, on Saturday, came Charlton Athletic on the ground where City had been relegated in such feeble fashion 11 months earlier. It was a ground on which they had not won a league game for 38 years, in a city where they had won just once in their previous 26 matches, the most recent of which was a shaky 2-1 defeat by Leyton Orient just four days earlier that might have unsettled teams with less mental strength.
But with three of their first-choice line-up sidelined by suspension and injury, the Canaries made light of their absentees, rose to the occasion impressively and, supported by more than 3,000 vociferous fans - plus some uncannily favourable results from around the country on Friday night and Saturday afternoon - not only secured promotion but put themselves within one point of becoming League One champions.
Lambert asked a great deal of certain individuals in such a crucial fixture as he juggled his available men, with Michael Spillane making his first start for more than six months at right-back, Russell Martin pushed into an unfamiliar midfield role, Stephen Hughes given only his third start since Boxing Day and Oli Johnson named in the starting eleven for only the third time since signing for the club.
But they coped admirably with both the opposition and the occasion and it was 20 minutes before either side had a clear opportunity, Charlton skipper Nicky Bailey getting clear on the left and his low effort being turned away by the diving Fraser Forster, although it may just have been drifting wide.
City, gradually getting into their stride, felt they had taken the lead in the 23rd minute through Hughes. Johnson showed good control before finding Simon Lappin on the left, and the midfielder's cross was met with a glancing near-post header by Hughes that gave 'keeper Darren Randolph no chance, but referee Hall disallowed the effort for offside.
However, roared on by fans who knew that second-placed Leeds were already three goals down at Gillingham, the Canaries were not to be denied and the decisive goal came in the 34th minute.
Lappin was very close to his first goal of the season with a left-foot shot that Randolph dived to his left to keep out. But Lappin swung the resulting flag-kick towards the far post and Nelson rose highest to score his second goal of the season with a firm header.
Bailey twice threatened to put Charlton level before the break, first when he latched on to Lappin's misplaced pass and curled a right-foot shot just wide, then when Forster dived to his left to keep out his volley on the stroke of half-time.
The second period was virtually one-way traffic as the hosts strained every sinew to try to get on terms and improve their own automatic promotion hopes.
Forster made a brilliant save four minutes after the break when he dived to his right to palm away a header from substitute Deon Burton that looked certain to provide the equaliser.
Then, on the hour, from a free-kick on the edge of the area, Bailey curled in a right-foot shot that Forster beat away to his left.
Jose Semedo missed his header from a long throw and Forster saved again when a shot from Therry Racon took a deflection but bobbled through to him, then Burton brought him into action again with a close-range volley.
In the face of such an onslaught, Lambert opted for an extra defender when Michael Rose replaced Johnson and City finished the match with four full-backs on the field. Adam Drury made two vital interceptions, Forster made another juggling save from his namesake and then palmed a teasing cross from Forster over the bar.
But despite the frantic nature of some of the home side's attacks, one sensed in the final 20 minutes that it was meant to be City's day.
Lappin made one vital tackle on Racon that neatly summed up the whole side's determination not to be denied their 11th away win of the campaign, and even the announcement of five minutes of stoppage time did not threaten to silence the chorus of “On the Ball, City” that began to echo round the stadium.