Strange but rewarding return for Canaries midfielder
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
As Kenny McLean entered the fray in the 21st minute at Vicarage Road he knew the pressure was on, both collectively and personally.
Having missed the reinvigorating 2-1 home win over Everton that ended a nightmare run of six consecutive defeats without a goal - of which he played every minute - the midfielder returned to the bench after a spell of Covid-19 self-isolation.
Jacob Sorensen and Pierre Lees-Melou had impressed with a balanced central pairing in the engine room during that game but McLean returned at Watford on Friday night with a sympathetic pat to the back of the head as Sorensen limped off with a knee injury, from a challenge that had led to Milot Rashica firing over the crossbar.
It has been a bright start from the visitors and nerves must have been creeping in as the Hornets then gradually took control of the first half, knowing he would be an easy scapegoat to blame if the score transformed from 0-0 to a defeat after his introduction.
His first contribution was a strong block on Kiko Femenia on halfway, only for the ball to rebound unkindly and require a crunching tackle from left-back Brandon Williams on Emmanuel Dennis.
McLean was in the book in the 38th minute despite seeming to win the ball when challenging Tom Cleverley, catching the top of his opponent’s foot with his boot off the ground, pleading his innocence as Mike Dean brandished a yellow card.
The 30-year-old and Williams were on the end of an angry rollicking from Ben Gibson after allowing Joao Pedro to slalom into the box just before the break, with the Brazilian only able to poke tamely at Angus Gunn.
- 1 'I wanted to stay' - Normann disappointed by City relegation
- 2 'We will bring players of the right standard' - City boss on missing link
- 3 Lee Payne: The tricky question Norwich City fans must face up to
- 4 Michael McIntyre and Robert Rinder spotted at Carrow Road
- 5 'Diabolical from day one' - Fans react to a woeful end to a woeful season for City
- 6 Aarons an ideal fit for Man United - Rio
- 7 City Q&A - with Paddy Davitt and Samuel Seaman
- 8 Smith insists City will be back after Spurs' rout
- 9 Cantwell set for City return after Bournemouth reject buy option
- 10 Mulbarton Wanderers win Norfolk Senior Cup final
Despite their control of possession, the Hornets were struggling to force clear chances but were getting some joy from concentrating their play out wide, avoiding the central midfield battleground that Lees-Melou and McLean were braced for.
Vicarage Road had been an unhappy hunting ground for the Scot previously too, misjudging a challenge on halfway within seconds of being brought on as a substitute in July 2020, leading to Danny Welbeck’s overhead-kick to earn Watford a 2-1 win.
The 2,300 travelling City fans had shown ‘the mayor’ their support as he replaced Sorensen though, singing his familiar chant in encouraging fashion, for a player that has been valued for reliability and consistency by both Daniel Farke and Dean Smith.
Supporters have often seemed split on McLean though, with many valuing him as an important part of the team who helps to keep the engine ticking over, but others questioning if he has the quality to impact Premier League games regularly enough.
What followed after the break saw McLean in the thick of the celebrations after being involved in the lead up to both of Josh Sargent’s goals.
His tenacity was on show as he made an interception and charged into the box, tackling Josh King to prevent a goal-kick, only for a clearance to cannon off Teemu Pukki and behind.
Then the former Aberdeen favourite reacted quicker than Cleverley to intercept a Watford clearance in the 51st minute and opted to try and play Pukki into the box rather than pull the trigger on his left foot from the edge of the D.
The following passage of play was rather strange for McLean though, with his hands on his head after putting too much on the pass.
Hassane Kamara stumbled as he raced Pukki and landed on the ball, unfortunately allowing the Finn to keep the ball in play. With McLean realising his striker had salvaged the situation and was about to cross he became a fan for a few seconds.
Crouched in anticipation, ready to spring into action, he had the best seat in the house as Sargent acrobatically flicked the ball in off the crossbar to spark the celebrations – and leave McLean with a feeling of relief, once VAR had completed the necessary checks at least.
His involvement in making it 2-0 was rather more straightforward, supporting Brandon Williams on the left to take possession and then slot a pass down the wing which allowed Milot Rashica to whip in a cross that Sargent anticipated brilliantly to power a header past the Hornets keeper and really crank up the celebrations.
VERDICT: Not the smoothest of outings but worked hard for the collective cause and very much played his part in an important win. May not be the most spectacular player but with City setting up a scrap for survival, his work rate and fighting spirit will be needed. The return of Mathias Normann may soon have an impact, with the win coming despite some low passing numbers, but Smith has already suggested a 4-4-2 will not be the answer for every encounter.
RATING: 7 out of 10