Norwich City’s Crofts hits Championship for six

SHEFFIELD UNITED 1, NORWICH CITY 2: We are not privy to the secrets of the dressing room. Nearly every player or manager will tell you that what is said behind closed doors stays behind closed doors.

But how one would love to be a fly on the wall during one of Paul Lambert’s half-time team talks.

The Norwich City boss was not about to divulge the exact nature of the advice he gave to his players halfway through Saturday’s Championship match against Sheffield United, but it’s a fair bet it was rather more direct than the “keep persevering” line he agreed to at the post-match Press conference.

There have been a handful of occasions during Lambert’s managerial reign when the Canaries have been distinctly second best in the first 45 minutes, but more often than not the difference after the break has been dramatic, suggesting his players have been treated to rather more than a few kindly words of encouragement.

It is not clear whether Lambert uses the same brand of hairdryer as fellow Glaswegian soccer boss Sir Alex Ferguson, but whatever was said within four walls at Bramall Lane certainly had the desired effect.

We saw it last season at Walsall, at Brighton and at Huddersfield after sub-standard opening halves. And the previous meeting with United at Carrow Road last month may have been another occasion when City needed one of their manager’s most inspiring interval pep talks.

On Saturday, once again, after struggling to get out of second gear in the opening half against the Blades, the Canaries looked a different side for the rest of the afternoon as they completed their first Championship double of the season, chalked up their sixth away win and moved into third place in the table while extending a remarkable run that has brought just one defeat in 13 league games.

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No one experienced a greater transformation in the second half than Andrew Crofts, who looks slightly less comfortable on the right side of midfield than in his former role at the base of the diamond, as minder to the back four, but who showed the kind of grim determination that made the difference between going home empty-handed and collecting another three points.

Six league goals from midfield before the end of January is a tidy return for the former Brighton captain and, as United found to their cost by leaving him unattended in the penalty area, when he hits it, it stays hit.

Micky Adams’ men would have been disappointed not to have cashed in on their territorial advantage in the first half, when former City loan striker Ched Evans threatened to give them a decisive edge.

In the 11th minute, loan signing Marcus Bent’s header set up Evans for a shot that City skipper Grant Holt headed clear, and minutes later Evans struck a half-volley from 25 yards that just swerved past the angle of post and bar.

There was further danger when Evans got the better of Zak Whitbread and cut inside but for once his shot lacked the power to trouble goalkeeper John Ruddy.

Ruddy kept City on terms in the 22nd minute, however, when Jamie Ward’s free-kick reached Evans and he struck a low drive that the ’keeper saved with his legs, diverting the shot over the bar.

Another Evans shot struck the back of Leon Barnett, and after a rare City raid forced Blades goalkeeper Steve Simonsen to punch Simeon Jackson’s cross away from under the crossbar, Evans curled a free-kick just wide as Ruddy dived to his left.

A free-kick nearly provided City with a half-time lead, however, when Shane Lowry was booked for tripping Chris Martin, and Martin got up to rattle the bar with a powerful effort, with Simonsen beaten.

It was a more ambitious Norwich after the break and Holt and Jackson both brought Simonsen into action before Crofts broke the deadlock in the 61st minute.

Wes Hoolahan’s long ball put Jackson clear on the left but Lowry got back to block the striker’s effort at the expense of a corner, which produced the opening goal.

David Fox took the kick from the left, Whitbread challenged Simonsen as he tried to punch clear and as the ball dropped, Crofts hooked it home on the half-volley with a powerful right-foot shot. Whether out of indignation or guilt, the ’keeper immediately chased referee Haines to protest but was promptly shown the yellow card.

It was Evans, United’s one big threat, who levelled the scores eight minutes later with his eighth goal of the season, showing great control when he latched on to Simonsen’s long kick forward and, with his back to goal, turned Barnett and squeezed a low shot just inside the post.

But still City looked the more likely winners. With 72 minutes gone, Chris Martin produced a stinging effort that Simonsen pushed wide, diving to his right. And from the resulting corner by Fox, Holt had a free header but sent it wide.

But it was another flag-kick from Fox that did the trick 10 minutes from time when Crofts restored City’s lead with an even better finish, from slightly further out than the first.

The kick from Fox was flicked on by Holt to the far post and headed clear by Evans as far as substitute Simon Lappin, whose shot was blocked, also by Evans, but Crofts reacted quickly and made a difficult task look easy as he struck the loose ball sweetly past Simonsen.