City winger Lee Croft was desperately hoping that his first start of the festive spell had done enough to book his place in the manager's FA Cup plans as the Canaries' thoughts turn to the visit of Bury this Saturday.
With Jimmy Smith back at Chelsea discussing his future with Avram Grant and Darren Huckerby held back on the substitutes' bench, opportunity finally knocked yesterday for Croft to start a contest.
Within five minutes he was thoroughly enjoying himself in the space behind full-back Clint Hill as he drove a low shot straight at Eagles' keeper Julian Speroni. Minutes later and Croft had wriggled free into that same space and was chipping an inviting cross onto Dion Dublin's head. And so it would continue until Huckerby arrived in his stead deep into the second period.
“It is frustrating,” Croft told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards, as he was quizzed as to whether Roeder's current policy of playing just one out-and-out wide player had done him any favours over a bust festive spell.
“Because you do want to play as many games as you can. But the gaffer goes into games with the intention of winning and if he wants to set up like that, then you've just got to go with it and respect his decision.”
The fact is, of course, that in terms of results, it has worked. There may be many a factor at work behind Norwich's seven-game unbeaten sequence, but having the midfield 'graft' of three pairs of legs as opposed to the 'craft' of two in the shape of Croft and Huckerby has made the Canaries harder to break down.
It was noticeable that when asked what he felt the difference was between the City team of two months ago and this one now, Canary centre-half Gary Doherty pointed to the benefit of having two, hard-working midfielders in front of him in the form of Matty Pattison and Darel Russell. Throw in a third in the shape of either Mark Fotheringham or Jimmy Smith and it only leaves one spare space for a winger of the Croft and/or Huckerby variety.
When it comes to chasing a game in the final 30 minutes, Roeder has proved more than happy to 'open' up with width on either flank. For the first hour, however, and thus far he has tended to be more cautious – to make Norwich harder to beat first; only then – platform built – does he go out to win the game.
Hence Croft's willingness to bide his time and wait for his chance – all in the hope that when opportunity knocks he can take it. According to Roeder afterwards, yesterday he took that opportunity “with both hands” and gave him “a nice problem” going into the Shakers game.
“When you get a chance coming on off the bench, you've got to try and have an input,” said Croft. “But when he gives you a nod like he did today, then you've got to come in and take it – and hopefully I've done that today.”
Roeder equally admitted that Croft had been a regular visitor to his office – asking him when that opportunity would arrive. Yesterday he got his answer.
“I've been to see the gaffer,” Croft confirmed to Radio Norfolk. “I've been coming on and he said he's been he's been pleased with my performances and he said just take it into the game today and he's pleased with me, so I'll take positives out of it.”
It all happened, he said, with a little bit of help from his friends.
“I was pleased with my performance,” he said. “I thought that I had an input into the game which you always want as a winger – and you want the ball as much as you can, so I enjoyed that.
“But that was down to the other lads as well. There are 11 players out there and they all played so well that it was an easy game for me to get into.”
Like many a manager and supporter, Croft was only disappointed that City's bright and inventive start – capped by Darel Russell's well-worked, ninth-minute opener – didn't actually lead to all three points.
“I think it's a really good point, but having taken the lead it's a bit disappointing that we didn't take it because I think we put a really good showing in today.”
Palace had, after all, not lost in 12 games before yesterday's Bank Holiday fixture and in Clinton Morrison had the hottest striker in the Championship up top. In the end, of course, the Eagles' unbeaten run continued and the two-time City transfer target had another goal for his growing collection – but only after Norwich had given both a real fright.
“It's a hard place to come to and they've been winning a lot of games,” said Croft. “So I guess we can go away happy with a point. But we're always striving for three and we're always going to be disappointed when we don't get all three.”
There was a new mood in the camp. “Are we brimming with confidence? Definitely,” he said.
“Especially coming to a place like this and producing some of the football that we have. I think the lads are enjoying it again and I think you can tell that we're going out there and we're not tense – we're going out there and expressing ourselves.
“In the past we would have come to places like this and would we have got a result? Would we have defended the way we did? Would we have attacked the way that we did? So, no, we're happy with things at the moment.”
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