Oli's double could prove pivotal

Michael Bailey Paul Lambert was asked in his post-match press conference if he found last night's game frustrating. Stripping back the reply, his answer was simply "yes, I did" - and that probably went for the majority of the Carrow Road crowd after a drizzly encounter.

Michael Bailey

Paul Lambert was asked in his post-match press conference if he found last night's game frustrating.

Stripping back the reply, his answer was simply "yes, I did" - and that probably went for the majority of the Carrow Road crowd after a drizzly encounter.

With City having slipped to two defeats in three games before yesterday - losses to Millwall and Southampton respectively - in Southend it would have been hard to hand pick a better opponent.


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United's players have reportedly not been paid for January, Steve Tilson's side were without a win this year and sitting just a point above the League One relegation places.

But the Shrimpers had previous at Carrow Road - their last three league meetings with Norwich at Carrow Road bringing two goalless draws and a 1-0 win.

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And for 78 minutes, and the odd scare after, it looked like little would change.

City's start was bright - no doubt buoyed by a few faces hoping to make the most of a rare chance to impress.

Lambert ditched the diamond midfield formation that has served him to such devastatingly good effect in recent months - through both choice, in resting Korey Smith and giving Anthony McNamee his first start in a Norwich shirt, and necessity, after the FA dismissed City's appeal against Darel Russell's red card on Saturday, leaving Stephen Hughes to step in.

Russell still has two games of his suspension to serve following last night's match. On the evidence of this he will be sorely missed as Norwich struggled to find control and composure against their Essex rivals.

With McNamee and Wes Hoolahan operating on the right and left flanks respectively, openings for Grant Holt and Chris Martin came and went as the home side looked for an early goal to settle any nerves of supporters who feared that City's recent run could turn into a similar blip being suffered by promotion rivals Charlton or - now to a lesser extent - Leeds.

Martin's excellent turn and 12-yard shot was the closest City came, his effort drifting narrowly past the far post with half of the home crowd on its feet waiting for the net to bulge.

But the early goal did not come and with City growing increasingly careless with possession, they let their visitors grow in confidence.

What might have been a growing sense that Southend could take a point from the game suddenly took on a whole new complexion when they stunned Carrow Road by taking the lead on the stroke of half-time.

It was a rare chance for the visitors - and not a pretty goal from Norwich's point of view.

Michael Rose, not for the first time, was caught out by Damien Scannell and his cross seemed to completely bamboozle Michael Nelson and Gary Doherty, leaving Scott Vernon - one of Colchester's goalscorers at Carrow Road on the opening day of the season - to fire past Fraser Forster from close range.

It was not so much the boos from Saturday as a stunned silence that greeted referee Mick Russell's whistle for the end of the first half.

City tried to force the issue in the second period, Holt clipping the outside of a post after some excellent graft from McNamee, but for all Norwich's possession it seemed Southend's counter attacks offered more danger to the scoreboard operator.

Then - and not for the first time this season - Lambert's changes proved to be match-winning.

The introduction of Oli Johnson and Korey Smith for Simon Lappin and a disappointing Stephen Hughes did not so much turn the game on its head, rather offer the two things City were missing - someone to use the ball well in midfield, and someone to take a chance in front of goal.

And both did the trick nicely.

Parity was restored when Johnson was in the perfect position to tuck away Steve Mildenhall's parry after he got down well to Holt's low drive 12 minutes from time.

Even after that there was a vulnerability to City's defence, Simon Francis' injury time free-kick going close to restoring Southend's lead with Forster intervening well.

But this was Johnson's night, and from McNamee's corner, he crashed home a superb near-post header to melt away all of Carrow Road's frustrations and send the City fans into raptures.

It was fitting the winner came from a McNamee cross - one of a numerous quality deliveries from a winger who clearly made an impact on his first start.

And with the Canaries' highly praised front three looking unusually off colour, last night was yet another example of Lambert's fringe players providing a contribution that has won his side points.

So the League One leaders march on, another win leaving the likely requirement of seven wins from their remaining 13 matches to say mission accomplished in three months' time.

And yes, last night was frustrating. But with tense being the operative word, thankfully Oli Johnson made sure all those frustrations are in the past.

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