Norwich City’s Russell Martin proves it is never too late

NORWICH CITY 1, CARDIFF CITY 1: It is hard to imagine members of the audience slipping quietly out of the cinema before the final tragic scene in Titanic, or theatregoers heading for the doors when they are five minutes away from discovering the clever twist in the last act of Witness for the Prosecution.

Yet even with the game on a knife-edge at Carrow Road there are those who frequently take their leave well before the fourth official has held aloft the board indicating how much additional time will be played.

The early birds were punished once again on Saturday when Russell Martin struck in the last of the 90 minutes to rescue a well-deserved point for Norwich City from their Championship promotion battle with Cardiff City.

After the late drama in this season’s home games against Swansea, Burnley and Sheffield United – and, less happily, in the defeats by Hull and Portsmouth – one would think the paying customers would be reluctant to vacate their seats early unless it is completely unavoidable, a case of catching the last train home or a sudden dash to the maternity ward.

Manager Paul Lambert, understandably, is too engrossed in the game to notice the shuffling of feet towards the exits.

“I don’t think anybody ever leaves here before the game is finished so that’s testament to the lads,” he said after his players had delivered another of their grand finales.

If only that were true. But perhaps those already outside the stadium were still there in spirit when they heard the roar that greeted full-back Martin’s fourth goal of the season.

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A draw was the very least the Canaries deserved as a team showing four changes from the FA Cup defeat by Leyton Orient recovered from a hesitant first 15 minutes against Dave Jones’ men to dominate the remainder of another cracking contest.

It did not quite match the quality of the New Year’s Day encounter with leaders Queens Park Rangers, but it was not far short. It was edge-of-the-seat entertainment – and the match-winner against Rangers delivered the crucial goal that kept City level on points with the Bluebirds and extended an impressive run that has brought just one defeat in 12 league games since their 3-1 reverse in South Wales at the end of October.

True, Cardiff, who had been beaten in their previous four away matches, showed no sign of travel sickness and began as if they were about to inflict the first double of Lambert’s reign over the Canaries, quite possibly by a comfortable margin.

Peter Whittingham had already brought goalkeeper John Ruddy into action with a crisp volley, after being teed up by Michael Chopra, when debutant Jon Parkin fired the visitors into a seventh-minute lead.

The burly, bearded Parkin, looking not unlike Desperate Dan, got above Zak Whitbread to flick on goalkeeper Tom Heaton’s long kick forward and when Chopra chested the ball into his path, he struck a superb, swerving half-volley past Ruddy from the edge of the area.

Parkin shot wide with another effort before the Canaries began to rally, and David Fox went close to equalising in the 15th minute when he struck the bar with a swerving effort from a square pass by Chris Martin.

Andrew Crofts forced Heaton into his first real save with a header from Wes Hoolahan’s cross, and then, in the 20th minute, the hosts had loud appeals for a penalty turned down when Holt went for a return pass from Chris Martin and defender Paul Quinn clipped his right ankle. Referee Keith Stroud waved it away and Hoolahan’s follow-up shot was straight at Heaton.

Ex-Canary Craig Bellamy was well policed by the home rearguard for most of the afternoon, though he had one chance to make it 2-0 when a solid challenge by Chopra on Fox sent him away. But after swapping passes with Whittingham, Bellamy’s low shot lacked the power to beat Ruddy.

Holt’s unhappy opening half continued when he had a goal disallowed for offside on the half-hour, tucking away a rebound after Heaton had saved Chris Martin’s powerful shot before the assistant referee’s flag cut short the celebrations.

The Canaries began the second period on top with Russell Martin heading just wide from Adam Drury’s cross, then Hoolahan and Crofts both having shots blocked by the huge frame of Mark Hudson.

Cardiff were still dangerous on the counter-attack and after Parkin curled one shot wide, they might have stretched their lead in the 63rd minute. Bellamy threaded the perfect pass through to Chopra, but Ruddy saved the day by getting down to smother the striker’s effort.

The rest was a fairly relentless mixture of goalmouth action and frayed tempers, with Hoolahan at the centre of things for City.

Holt swivelled to fire just wide from Hoolahan’s pass, substitute Aaron Wilbraham brought Heaton into action again with a close-range effort and Wilbraham was narrowly off target after Hoolahan and Drury combined well.

Cardiff skipper Bellamy, already booked for dissent and slowly transforming into Mr Hyde, let his frustration get the better of him when he shoved Drury on to the perimeter track to earn the derision of a home crowd who had politely applauded his name before kick-off.

But that same crowd were out of their seats in the final minute when two of City’s substitutes combined to set up the equaliser.

Simon Lappin took Hoolahan’s pass and his cross from the left was helped on by Wilbraham’s miscued shot, which drifted beyond the far post, where right-back Martin clipped it into the roof of the net. A top snooker player would have been proud to pot the ball from such a tight angle.