Alex Neil described it as, “the perfect away performance” and, as ever, it was impossible to argue.
That City had gone to one of the division’s form sides and emerged with an emphatic three goal victory was, to most of us at least, a glorious surprise. But not to the City boss.
Such is Neil’s confidence in his squad and faith in his own ability to manage, he knew if his players carried out his Colney-honed game-plan to the letter they could win the game. And sure enough…
He demonstrated again that, particularly away from home, he’s willing to pick ‘horses for courses’ and veer away from his preferred 4-1-4-1, and surprised a few (including me) by recalling Wes Hoolahan in a formation that also included two out-and-out strikers.
Not since the days of that other Scottish manager who we’re not allowed to talk about has Wes been successfully accommodated in a formation with two up top but yesterday, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, it worked like a dream.
On this occasion it was a bit different of course in that the narrow midfield four was designed to crowd those central areas where Watford, with their preferred 3-5-2, have tended to dominate their opposition but still, pre-match, I was struggling to visualise how it would work.
As ever, my concerns were nothing more than further confirmation that I don’t know what I’m talking about!
The protection afforded John Ruddy against opposition who have been full of goals was not only a testament to the game-plan but also to those who implemented it. Against opposition with whom he was also too familiar Seb Bassong again stepped up to the plate and, it seems, joyfully bucked the non-celebration against previous clubs’ trend.
Steven Whittaker too again reaffirmed the faith shown in him by the manager – and found time for an exquisite pass for Lewis Grabban’s second goal – but it would be wrong to single out individuals. Instead it was one of those days when the defending started at the other end of the pitch.
From one to eleven the Canaries defended like heroes and to have restricted the ‘free-scoring’ Hornets to one attempt on goal was staggering.
The key in such tight games, as confirmed afterwards by both managers, is to get your noses ahead and thanks to Wes and his dancing feet City did just that.
The Irishman’s inclusion in the side continues to divide opinion, some citing his lack of consistent end product, but the jinking run that led to a rash challenge from Miguel Layún was a glimpse of the Wes of old.
Having endured a torturous morning on Tuesday listening to talkSPORT’s finest dissect in microscopic detail Wayne Rooney’s dive at Preston, I refuse to enter the was it/wasn’t it debate other than to say the following:
* Did he dive? Probably
* Would I have been miffed if it has occurred at the other end? Definitely
* Will I be fuming the next time it occurs in City’s penalty area? Without a doubt
* Do I care that Wes ‘won’ us a penalty? Not one iota
The key thing was taking the opportunity when it came along and luckily, despite Gomes guessing the right way, Grabban made it third time lucky from the spot.
With the same player making the game safe with five minutes remaining it now takes him on the eleven league goals for the season; a decent return with fourteen games still to go and having spent a large chunk of it either on the bench or tripping over his bottom lip – or both. But now, crucially, he’s playing with a smile on his face.
Cameron Jerome’s fifteenth of the season, again courtesy of those dancing Irish feet, was another thing of beauty and continued his ‘hot’ run. With Gary Hooper, a bench-warmer for 89 minutes yesterday, also on the cusp of double-figures and in good form the goalscoring-scene is set up perfectly for a thrilling run-in.
Results, with the exception of a Darren Bent-inspired comeback at Derby, went City’s way yesterday and it was close to being one of those Carlsberg days. But, as difficult as it is in the circumstances, feet should be kept on terra firma.
A run that has yielded 19 points from 24 is impressive in anyone’s book and has now given City a platform from which to launch an assault on the top two but the real hard work starts now.
Momentum is everything at this stage of the season and right now City have it by the shed load but, as our friends down the road have demonstrated, the Championship is a notoriously unforgiving beast and can take you from the heights to the depths and back again in the space of a fortnight.
For this run to continue Neil will be ensuring those heads in the dressing room stay focussed and those boots stay in touch with the ground. That’s the only way.
If we have learnt one thing this season it’s that the Class of 2015 have a tendency to occasionally believe the hype but, luckily for us all, Alex Neil identified that within eight days of his arrival. Since then the demeanour has changed and so too the fortunes.
If the current mindset can remain unaltered by the events of Vicarage Road – and it would be a brave man who would dare challenge the Neil/McAvoy ethos – then we should brace ourselves, starting at Blackburn on Tuesday night. They promise to be dangerous opponents.
If that hurdle can be safely negotiated – and I’d take a point now – then, and only then, can the gaze be diverted to the small matter of a Sunday lunchtime kick-off. Until then I’m loathe to mention it.
But we’re in safe hands folks. This Alex Neil bloke knows his onions.