City boss Glenn Roeder this evening saluted City winger Lee Croft for taking his opportunity “with both hands” after the Canaries were held to a 1-1 draw by the Championship's form team, Crystal Palace.
The fact that City 'were held' to a 1-1 draw as opposed to 'clawed their way to…' or 'dug deep to earn…' merely reflected the nature of the contest as Norwich carved by far the greater number of chances out of one of the brighter and breezier contests to be staged at Selhurst Park.
For that, in part, City had Croft's impact to thank as he provided welcome width and invention on his first start of the festive spell – the one-time Manchester City starlet making the most of Jimmy Smith's return to Chelsea at the end of his loan spell and Roeder's decision to limit Darren Huckerby to a second-half substitute's role.
“I thought he took it with both hands,” said the City chief, after Norwich's third successive 1-1 draw. Given that the opposition over the last four and a half hours of football has comprised of Charlton Athletic, Wolves and Crystal Palace, the reborn Canaries are now more than holding their own with the Championship's bigger boys.
They have a consistency to their performances too, with Croft in particular adding a welcome spark to proceedings on his return to Roeder's starting plans.
“He's been very effective coming on in the second-half for half an hour and he often pops in to see me – just to remind me how much he wants to start a game. He's a super lad to work with,” said the Canary boss.
“And I said to him: 'You've just got to be patient and an opportunity will come. And when it does, Lee, make sure you play so well that it makes it very difficult for me to take the shirt off you…'
“And he's given me a nice problem – certainly the sort of problem that I want more of, anyway.”
The only downside was the fact that today also brought victories for QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and – most remarkably – Colchester United; all of which ensured that City go into the New Year still only one point above the drop zone, albeit still heading firmly in the right direction. Two more points from this afternoon's game and mid-table safety would be firmly visible on the horizon.
Certainly Roeder believed that on chances and possession, Norwich deserved more for their Bank Holiday efforts.
“Did we have the better of that game? Yes, definitely,” said Roeder, as Dion Dublin, Jamie Cureton, Ched Evans and Croft himself all went close to extending Darel Russell's ninth minute lead. “Even in the second-half, I thought we looked more menacing down at their end than they really did at our end.”
Given that Palace were unbeaten in 12 going into today's clash and Norwich had gone six without a defeat ensured that the game was the clash of the two 'form' teams of the Championship; both emerged with both records and honour intact – even if Roeder insisted that Norwich deserved to take the points.
“They're on a fantastic run – the form team of the division – but no-one would change my mind that we were the better team throughout and played some really good football as well.
“And when you consider the position we're in in the table, to have the confidence to shift the ball around in the manner that we did, I was pleased. We needed to be a little bit tighter with our finishing – and there was some good goalkeeping – and we would have won the game.”
Part of the reason that City didn't take all three points was, of course, the 50th minute leveller presented to Clinton Morrison for his ninth goal in 11 games. Once again it was Palace playmaker Ben Watson with the pin-point delivery as the in-form Eagles striker produced a stooping little back-header on the penalty spot to nick the ball away and beyond a stranded David Marshall.
However, the fact of the matter was that Morrison made his stooping little back-header all alone on the penalty spot as City pushed up, pulled apart and generally did everything else but pick-up the Championship's hottest marksman.
“I always say that if you concede from set-plays they are cheap goals,” said Roeder afterwards, anger remarkably in check.
“We did a lot of work looking at videos of Crystal Palace and the number of goals they score from set-plays is phenomenal – and we got caught out on a set-play which is disappointing. In Ben Watson they have someone who can deliver an excellent ball into the danger area and we dealt with all of them – bar one. And its cost us.
“But conceding one here still shouldn't have meant that we only took a point.”
Which, said Roeder, was telling in itself. That suddenly he can walk into a dressing room after a 1-1 draw at seventh-placed, in-form Palace and see chins pointing to the floor; that Norwich were disappointed to have come away from SE25 with no more than a point from another spirited and focussed performance.
“It shows how much we've improved in two months,” he said. “After the game, I had to pick them up a little bit. They were that disappointed coming here today and only taking a point. Whereas two months ago they'd have been jumping up and down as if they'd won the cup if they'd got a point here.
“So expectation levels have been raised which is what I wanted. The players feel much more happier with themselves and much more confident. That showed in their play and I'm really pleased with them.”
Roeder confirmed that Evans, left-back Mo Camara and the ever-willing Matty Pattison would all now be returning to their full-time employers, their initial loan spells in Norfolk over.
Equally, however, the City chief confirmed again that he expected to see all three back at Colney on Friday with new and longer tours of duty agreed with their respective clubs. “I'd like to keep all of them and I'm pretty confident at the moment that I will,” he said. “But seeing is believing, as they say…”