City boss Peter Grant was breathing a huge sigh of relief this weekend as the Canaries bagged three big points against Crystal Palace and lifted themselves out of the 'What are they doing there….' zone towards the bottom of the early Championship table.
Yesterday's narrow, 1-0 win courtesy of David Strihavka's first goal in English football hauled Norwich firmly into the early mid-table pack. And with Coventry City surprisingly coming a-cropper at home to new leaders Bristol City, for now the league looks as open and as inconsistent as ever.
West Bromwich Albion's 4-0 win over Ipswich Town has an ominous look to it; otherwise the bigger guns have yet to stamp their authority on the division.
Right now, City are no better and no worse than anyone else; no nearer than anyone else in establishing either a consistent pattern of play or a consistent level of performance. They are scratching about for results and yesterday Strihavka delivered them one. A big one, given what the rest of the week is about to bring.
“All round I was pleased with the boys,” said Grant, swift to acknowledge that it wasn't the most fluent of spectacles – even if Darren Huckerby's first league start of the season upped the menace factor.
“They dug in. It wasn't the greatest of games – it was two nervous teams that were playing, but overall absolutely delighted with the three points. Because that's what we're in the game for – to win. It's a massive three points for us.”
Strihavka's winner could, likewise, set the 24-year-old off on a little roll – particularly if his prize is a start against Charlton on Tuesday night. Chris Brown had another luckless day in front of goal – spooning a horrible volley over just after the break.
Work and hold the ball up as well as he might, he still has now gone 14 games without a goal since making that ?325,000 switch south last January. And now he has a fit-again Strihavka firmly on his case.
“He's been doing very well in training,” said Grant, quizzed as to whether he had seen the 6ft 2in Czech striker growing into his new surroundings in training.
“It's just that we haven't had the opportunity because for two-and-a-half weeks he was off ill.
“He'd have this throat infection, we'd give him time off and then he'd have it again – and he was going to play against Rochdale,” said the City boss, pointing to another factor as to why Strihavka had struggled to make an immediate impact – the performances of his first front two – Brown and new August Player of the Month, Jamie Cureton.
“That's the nature of the beast sometimes – you're out of the side sometimes not because of the way that you're playing, it's sometimes down to the guy in front of you.
“But I think that I've got a different mix with the strikers now. If they're all fit, we can change the game – play a different way.”
Besides Strihavka needed to be putting his shifts in training, said Grant, if only to keep Chris Martin off the bench.
“Chris has been doing well – and you're leaving him out of the 16. So it's great to be in that position. And, as I say, very pleased for the big fella' that he's got his first goal.”
In fairness, it was sharp and alert header as he reacted first to Dion Dublin's far post knockdown. “He was the top scorer in the Czech league last year, so he's no dummy,” said Grant.
“And I'm sure that he's got a bright future in the English game – he's powerful, he's quick and technically he's good.”
Grant had already made one big call selection-wise – dropping Julien Brellier to the bench to accommodate both Huckerby's first Championship start and a place for Simon Lappin who found himself in central midfield alongside Darel Russell.
“I just feel in the games that we've had, we've not had enough passes,” said Grant, in danger of borrowing from Steve McClaren's England manual as he suggested that Brellier and Russell were perhaps too similar and that Lappin's arrival offered a more natural balance as his left-foot ensured his first instinct was to open his body out and feed Huckerby.
For Brellier, Russell and Lappin, read Lampard, Gerrard and Barry.
“I just thought that Simon would give us a different balance with his left foot – and the fact that Huckerby is on that side.
“I think a natural left-sider automatically drifts over there if Hucks is caught out of position,” said Grant, still trying to mix and match in his midfield to cover for the loss of both Mark Fotheringham and Jimmy Smith.
“We lost the two play-makers that we thought we were going to have, so we went with two guys who are probably similar in many ways and are better when the opposition have the ball.
“So I just felt today that I had to change that a little bit and I thought the two of them worked well in there. But Julien's got a big, big part to play in it – there's no doubt about that.”
Absent altogether was skipper Jason Shackell for whom yesterday's game came just too soon for his ankle ligament injury. Once again Dion Dublin's calm head in any crisis ensured that David Marshall had a relatively trouble-free afternoon.
“Jason's done bits and bobs,” Grant reported. “He took part with us a little bit yesterday (Friday) and he feels good in himself.
“But at this moment in time, do I take the chance with him? Do I take the chance with him given that I could lose him for five or six weeks if there's a recurrence?
“Not with the nature of the loan system at this moment in time and people not allowing any players out. I'll look at Jason again tomorrow (Sunday) and then we'll look again on Monday and assess it for the Charlton match.”
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