P-word still under wraps for Norwich City boss Lambert

MIDDLESBROUGH 1, NORWICH CITY 1: At what stage Norwich City supporters – and those in the media world who follow the club’s fortunes – are allowed to get a little bit excited about the team’s progress in the Championship is still not entirely clear.

When they thrashed their bitter local rivals perhaps, scoring four goals against them in a league match for the first time?

Winning back-to-back home games over Christmas and New Year, including a thrilling victory over the divisional leaders?

Or moving into the automatic promotion places for the first time by maintaining their hugely impressive away record, taking a precious point with a depleted line-up?

None of these yet fits the bill. The P-word, whether it is promotion or merely play-offs, remains off limits for manager Paul Lambert, as he made clear once again after yesterday’s draw at the Riverside Stadium lifted the Canaries into second place.

Asked how it felt to see his side in the top two in the table, Lambert simply replied: “The main objective for us is to stay in the league – it always has been from day one.”

Well, the good news is that it is odds on survival now. Three more wins from the final 21 matches will probably do it, although Leicester City were relegated from the Championship with 52 points three seasons ago, so better make it three wins and a draw to be on the safe side.

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We should not be surprised or offended by Lambert’s dead bat response, even if talk of keeping his head above water sounds ultra-cautious in the current circumstances.

When his team moved 11 points clear at the top of League One last season with eight games remaining, his only admission was that “we’ve given ourselves a chance” of promotion.

By taking nothing for granted he is guaranteed to keep his team on their toes and eliminate any risk of complacency, while at the same time trying to keep the pressure off his players by maintaining a relatively low profile.

City appear to be ably assisted in this task by The Football League Show, which gave nearly as much air time to Neil Warnock’s post-match gripes as it did to the action itself after Saturday’s win over Queens Park Rangers, and which again spared little time last night for the game at Middlesbrough. Not that there were too many highlights to pick from as City made their point at the Riverside with dogged resistance and the odd stroke of good fortune in a one-sided second half, rather than with the kind of flowing football that should have brought a bigger victory over the leaders 48 hours earlier.

Indeed, apart from Wes Hoolahan’s absence through injury and a rare start in midfield for Owain Tudur Jones – his first for City for 14 months – there was little worth scribbling down in the notebook before skipper Grant Holt fired his side ahead in the 12th minute with his 12th goal of the season.

Holt moved on to new striking partner Aaron Wilbraham’s flick and got the better of David Wheater to shoot from a tight angle, goalkeeper Jason Steele managing only to shovel his effort into the net.

The Middlesbrough equaliser nine minutes later crept in almost as apologetically, as Julio Arca raced on to ex-City loan striker Leroy Lita’s ball and tried to thread a pass into the danger area, only for defender Leon Barnett, back in the side after a two-match ban, to divert it past his own goalkeeper, John Ruddy.

Wilbraham, making a nuisance of himself on only his second appearance for the Canaries, had a shot blocked by Wheater and caused more problems when he robbed Joe Bennett and his shot was diverted into the side netting.

The new striker then excelled at the opposite end by blocking a goalbound effort from defender Matthew Bates, another ex-Canary loanee, after Wheater flicked on a corner, so denying Boro’ an interval lead.

Chris Martin, kept in reserve for the first half, replaced Tudur Jones in an attempt to provide more attacking threat after the break, but most of the openings came at the other end and for once one wondered if City would hold out. Nicky Bailey’s corner provided one opportunity for Boro’ when it was nodded back by Wheater, but Bates headed wide of the target.

Ruddy was almost left in trouble by Simon Lappin’s backpass as he raced out to beat Lita to the ball before, with nearly 25 minutes left, Holt was given a breather and replaced by Simeon Jackson.

The hosts had most of the best openings after that. Arca created enough space for a long-range effort that flew wide and the impressive Barry Robson almost made it 2-1 in the 76th minute when he found room to let fly right-footed – but was denied by a fine save from Ruddy, leaping to his left to turn his shot over the top. Jackson brought Steele into action with a well-struck half-volley after Wilbraham and Bates tangled for possession, but it was the first real attempt on goal City had managed in the second half.

Boro’ thought they had secured a winner with six minutes left, after Russell Martin became the fourth City booking for chopping down Bennett.

From the resulting free-kick by Bailey, Wheater volleyed home at the far post, but the linesman flagged for an infringement, possibly shirt-tugging, as Wilbraham went crashing to the ground.

Four minutes of stoppage time brought a couple of scares as Justin Hoyte struck the outside of the post with a fierce drive, and Robson flashed a left-foot shot just wide.

For once, City and their fans must have been grateful to hear the final whistle.