Photo Gallery: Cometh the hour, cometh Norwich City’s Grant Holt
Liverpool 1, Norwich City 1: On the big occasion, big players will produce big moments and big performances – so claimed Norwich City boss Paul Lambert after a breathtaking 90 minutes at Anfield.
He was answering a question about goalkeeper John Ruddy’s display, notably two outstanding saves from Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker, Luis Suarez, and at the same time giving the England management team a nudge about the form of his number one.
But while ex-Everton ’keeper Ruddy fully merited the praise coming his way on his return to Merseyside, Lambert might just as easily have been referring to evergreen striker Grant Holt, who marked a century of first team appearances for the Canaries by coming off the bench and, on the hour, producing a wonderful header for the goal that earned his side a point.
In the past two seasons, there hasn’t been a bigger player than 30-year-old Holt in City’s inexorable rise from the lower reaches of League One to the Premier League, with two player of the year awards and the second fastest 50 goals in club history going hand in hand with his role as an inspirational skipper in back-to-back promotions.
That tally is now up to 55 in 100 games thanks to his bullet-like header from Anthony Pilkington’s cross, which levelled the scores after veteran ex-Canary Craig Bellamy, in his second spell at Anfield, had given the home side the lead in first-half stoppage time.
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Last Tuesday, after starting four consecutive first team games on the bench, Holt played for City Reserves against Aston Villa in front of a crowd of 934 at Carrow Road. A few days later, one website listed him as one of the Premier League’s 10 “dirtiest” players on the basis that he was among those to have conceded the most free-kicks – no mention that he is also one of the most commonly fouled players in the division.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man. City had withstood a fearful pounding from Liverpool in a feverish atmosphere until Bellamy struck in the closing seconds of first-half stoppage time. There were signs of a comeback after the break as City began more purposefully but it was Holt’s introduction that delivered it.
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Of course, Liverpool could and probably should have been out of reach by then, as manager Kenny Dalglish was later keen to point out, but a combination of Ruddy’s agility and the woodwork kept them at bay.
After just two minutes, Martin Skrtel rattled the crossbar with a header from Charlie Adam’s corner, then Suarez looked certain to open the scoring as he wriggled through but fired wide.
A brilliant save by Ruddy then kept the Canaries on terms in the 11th minute when Bellamy broke down the left and Suarez met his cross with a first-time effort that the ’keeper palmed on to the post with his left hand, Stewart Downing blasting the rebound wide.
Wes Hoolahan produced City’s first shot at goal, parried, not all that convincingly, by goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who then had to keep out Steve Morison’s header from a David Fox corner.
Adam floated another attempt just over the bar for the Reds but one minute of injury time in the opening half proved one minute too many for City as Bellamy struck. Russell Martin tangled with Suarez as they challenged for a long ball from Jose Enrique and as Martin slipped to the ground and inadvertently knocked it on, Bellamy ran on to score with a sidefoot effort that deflected off Marc Tierney on its way past Ruddy.
Martin made more telling contact five minutes after the break when his toe diverted a Suarez shot on to the post after a brilliant turn by the Uruguayan.
Holt was introduced for Elliott Bennett with 56 minutes gone, and after Fox had tested Reina with a long-range effort, the “big moment” arrived on the hour.
Bradley Johnson and Hoolahan combined to find Pilkington, now operating on the right, and he swung in the perfect cross towards the near post, where Holt left Jamie Carragher, Glen Johnson and Reina trailing as he headed the equaliser in front of the stunned Kop.
It was almost 2-1 five minutes later thanks to the Pilkington-Holt combination when the winger crossed from the left and the striker’s header was goalbound until Reina stuck out his right hand to palm it away.
Ruddy foiled Suarez twice more as Liverpool introduced more than �50m worth of substitutes and, with five minutes left, the home crowd were screaming for a penalty when Leon Barnett slid the ball away from Adam on the corner of the penalty area, but the real drama came in stoppage time.
First substitute Andy Carroll was inches wide with a free header from Steven Gerrard’s cross. But the best was saved until last as Gerrard’s centre was met with a superb volley by Suarez, only for Ruddy to make a stunning save by diverting it over the bar – and sending the Canaries’ travelling army of fans home in celebratory mood.