Proud Norwich City have proved they have moved on with draw at Aston Villa
Every club will believe its fans are the best in the world. But at a sun-drenched Villa Park on Saturday the Canaries faithful offered the evidence that backed their case.
Hero or villain was the theme as City came up against the man who instigated their miraculous rise to the top, for the first time since his acrimonious departure.
And given their name, Villa were willing to join in. Indeed, their Heroes & Villains fanzine apparently offered a free tissue with every copy for their visitors.
No doubt about it, Paul Lambert was the subject of all conversations from the travelling contingent before battling through the turnstiles. Once they battled their way out, the subject could be revisited. But there was a moratorium inside the ground. An ignorance of Lambert’s arrival pitchside. None of the Colchester pantomime villain script.
Instead, the blocks bathed in yellow sung only for their club and players – as Lambert himself regularly stated, the most important people at any club.
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Vociferous shouts of ‘One Chrissy Hughton’ rang out, the first of such nature this season and while partially a result of the superb Arsenal win a week earlier, it would be naive to believe they were not also a dig at the man in the opposite dugout.
But that was fine. The club has moved on. And on the basis of the last two outings not to its detriment.
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Much like at White Hart Lane, Hughton’s unchanged XI from that Gunners success added discipline and shape to the energy and slick football he inherited.
But for an inspired display from Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan and an all-too often poor final ball, City would have won. Once against 10 men, they should have.
Crosses from either side sailed over heads or behind the goal at a frustrating pace – and when the visitors did get it right, they found a man in form in front of them.
The American keeper’s toes were all that prevented Wes Hoolahan finishing Grant Holt’s first-half through-ball. He repeated the trick with his shoulder in the second half as the Irishman conjured more magic.
Before all that the Canaries should have been spared the need for a final ball at all by referee Phli Dowd. Villa captain Ron Vlaar shoved Elliott Bennett on the edge of the area. Inside or outside the box was up for debate, the fact it was a foul wasn’t.
Meanwhile, the hosts’ attacking exploits were limited – only for them to be handed their big chance by the City defence. It was 27 minutes when Gabby Agbonlahor drew Sebastien Bassong out of position and Michael Turner failed to track Christian Benteke behind him.
Brett Holman’s cross found the Belgian with most of the penalty area to himself, and he slotted easily inside John Ruddy’s far post. Darren Bent no doubt mumbled something from the bench to celebrate.
The home crowd finally made a peep too, while Lambert celebrated – apparently more than any Villa goal this season. But certainly no more than any goal during his Carrow Road reign.
The apathy around Villa Park was something to behold and while the hosts momentarily promised a better tempo after the break, the naive dismissal of Joe Bennett for his second foul on namesake Elliott on 52 minutes ended that quickly. His first-half hack deserving; his second-half obstruction silly.
From there, it was all about what City would take back to Carrow Road – for long spells, the answer seemed destined to be nothing. Territory mounted. Pressure built. Changes were made. Chances came and went. Holt was sent clear but maybe should have tried a repeat of the “scoop-dink” that failed so spectacularly against Arsenal, as Guzan went to ground early.
More pertinent was Chris Herd’s terrible challenge on Hoolahan in the build-up – one that should have produced his second booking and reduced Villa to nine.
Finally, with 11 minutes left the least City deserved arrived. Robert Snodgrass provided the quick short corner, Hoolahan the wonderful centre and Turner a deft flick off the far post that more than made up for his earlier lapse.
The cheers for City and Hughton rose to new heights. The new City manager pumped his fists harder than we’ve seen, before visibly acknowledging his new band of support across the pitch.
Actions were speaking louder than a thousand words.
Camped in the Villa half, another Bennett could have made a name for himself – only for Ryan to slash over – while Snodgrass’ prod had too much on it as City’s last hope of victory ebbed away.
And so home boos greeted the final whistle as one of England’s great clubs remains trapped by its own expectations. Speaking as someone who anticipated Lambert to change that, it was hard to mark them higher than the lifeless final-day effort they brought to Carrow Road last season.
In fact, on this showing it may be keeping Villa in the top flight would match his many achievements here.
But as the City faithful proved at Villa Park, worrying about Lambert has long been put to bed.
And what’s more, they did it with the style and class anyone would be proud of.
• City ratings:
John Ruddy: Had to keep his concentration, and his handling was impeccable 7
Russell Martin: Poor deliveries first half, injury forced him out of the second 5
Sebastien Bassong: Led the back four well and even drove City forward late on 7
Michael Turner: One costly defensive lapse, made up for with a superb equaliser 7
Javier Garrido: One almost calamitous minute apart, solid and offered support 6
Alex Tettey: Covered ground, broke up play, got forward, gets better each week 7
Bradley Johnson: Worked hard, but could not match quality of Arsenal effort 5
Elliott Bennett: Worked so hard defensively and his service was as good as any 7
Wes Hoolahan: Villa never got to grips. Could’ve scored, made the equaliser 8
Anthony Pilkington: Covered the ground, but had a rare off-day with the ball 5
Grant Holt: Led his troops, mostly held ball up well, couldn’t take his big chance 7
Subs: Ryan Bennett 5, Robert Snodgrass 5, Steve Morison 6.
• Villa ratings:
Brad Guzan: Could do nothing about Turner’s goal, and outstanding for the rest 8
Chris Herd: Good shift and worked hard, but should’ve been sent off 6
Ron Vlaar: Often out-muscled by Holt, and lucky not to concede a penalty 5
Matthew Lowton: Coped well enough in an unfamiliar central position 6
Joe Bennett: Offered little with the ball, and was naive in getting sent off 4
Karim El Ahmadi: Neat, tidy and usually hard to shake off the ball 7
Marc Albrighton: A willing runner but lapse partly responsible for City equaliser 7
Fabian Delph: Gave the ball away too often and unable to impose himself 5
Brett Holman: Helped create opener and offered support most of the game 6
Christian Benteke: Took his goal well but should be more of a threat throughout 7
Gabriel Agbonlahor: Playing centrally didn’t suit him; under-used and ineffective 5
Subs: Eric Lichaj 5, Darren Bent 6, Andreas Weimann 5.