Third man Jackson much more than just extra cover
Simeon Jackson’s inclusion in the starting line-up for Norwich City’s last two Championship matches is a clear sign that the highly successful “Holy Trinity” no longer forms an automatic part of manager Paul Lambert’s attacking strategy.
For the past 12 months, with only a few exceptions – skipper Grant Holt’s suspensions and injuries or a handful of matches when Lambert named loan striker Stephen Elliott in his eleven – the City boss has kept faith with a winning combination in Holt, Chris Martin and Hoolahan, who between them delivered 67 senior goals in all competitions last season.
Cody McDonald and Oli Johnson played valuable but only occasional supporting roles in the League One title campaign and Republic of Ireland international Elliott grabbed a couple of vital goals in the 3-1 win at Huddersfield when he came off the bench on his second appearance for the club, but failed to build on that promising start.
Martin was omitted soon after that trip to Yorkshire in favour of Elliott, but responded with a memorable winner as a late substitute against Leeds – continuing his knack of delivering vital goals at vital times and underlining his reputation as probably the best finisher on the books.
He had demonstrated clinical finishing all season, prime examples being the goal that broke the deadlock in the 4-0 home win against Leyton Orient, the first two goals – taken brilliantly on a bog of a pitch – in the 5-0 win at Colchester and the winner against Brentford after City had been reduced to 10 men. And after his magic moment against Leeds, he conjured up another special with his late equaliser from a free-kick against MK Dons.
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Yet Lambert had made no secret of his desire to inject more pace into his side and while many of his summer signings were like-for-like replacements for players who had moved on, Jackson’s arrival signalled a potential alternative to the established order in attack.
Whereas new recruits such as John Ruddy, Elliott Ward and Andrew Crofts could be seen almost from day one as likely straight swaps for Fraser Forster, Gary Doherty and Darel Russell – and Andrew Surman was preferred to Simon Lappin on the left side of midfield before injury struck – there was always the question of who was most under pressure from Jackson’s arrival, whether there might be a change of formation and how the Canada international would fit into the overall plan.
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We discovered who in the home match against Leicester City when Martin was again the player omitted, though Lambert did not expand on his reasons for the change, merely stating after the 4-3 victory that it was “my prerogative” to pick the team he felt would win the match.
Jackson instead provided some answers four days later with two beautifully-taken goals in the 3-0 win at Bristol City, smashing in the first from the edge of the penalty area, and coolly tucking the second past World Cup goalkeeper David James after sprinting on to goalkeeper Ruddy’s long clearance.
Now I remain one of Chris Martin’s biggest fans and I was more than a little surprised that neither he nor Hoolahan made it into the top three in last season’s player of the season vote.
But there is no doubt that Jackson has given the Canaries an exciting new option and after only fleeting appearances – one spectacular goal as a substitute against Swansea and only two starts before the Leicester match – his patience has been rewarded.
“Our strike force is quite strong so you have to sit there and wait and when you get your chance you have to go out there and prove what you can do,” he said after the game at Ashton Gate.
Lambert praised Jackson’s professionalism when he added: “He’s not played much football and he’s had to wait patiently, but it’s a squad game.
“One thing about Simeon Jackson, he’s a brilliant pro – he never once let his head go down when he wasn’t in the side.”
With the 23-year-old maintaining his goalscoring form with an eye-catching effort for Canada in the 2-2 draw against Ukraine in Kiev last Friday, it will be a big surprise if he does not keep his place against Queens Park Rangers tomorrow.
Jackson has admirers beyond Carrow Road, too, and his potential was highlighted as far back as 18 months ago by former striker and BBC pundit Steve Claridge, who watched him in action for Gillingham against Brentford.
Claridge made reference to Jackson’s “striking resemblance” to ex-Canary striker Robert Earnshaw but admitted that he was having a difficult match against the Bees on the day in question.
But he argued: “It is only when the game starts to open up that you will really see players such as Jackson coming into his own.
“There is as much to learn about character from a player going through a tough spell as there is when everything is ticking along nicely. During this period in the game Jackson never hid, never stopped showing for the ball and was never reluctant to chase opponents down when he had the chance to put pressure on the ball.
“Then, all of a sudden, I saw why he has been so highly rated as he latched on to a ball over the top, got between the two centre-backs, showed his strength in the challenge to deal with one of them and good balance to ride the tackle of the other. He then hit a first time half-volley into the bottom corner of the net with the ’keeper rooted to the spot but his effort was harshly disallowed.
“But even after this setback he never let his head go down . . . because of his constant movement, he got into excellent positions to give him good scoring chances if he had been found with a pass. Unfortunately, both times his team-mates did not have the quality to pick him out. His reaction to this was nice to see and, instead of moaning, he was very demonstrative in his encouragement of his fellow players.”
Claridge also made the point that contrasting styles and strengths were an important feature of any front pair.
“When you play up front with someone I think the more your game differs from theirs, the better the partnership will be,” he said.
That was certainly true of Holt and Jackson, chalk and cheese at Ashton Gate, and if Martin shows the same determination to regain his place as he did last season, Lambert has the kind of selection “problem” that would make most Championship managers envious.