Ched Evans' fourth goal in 12 games on the stroke of half-time proved enough to keep Glenn Roeder's Canaries storming up the Championship table with a narrow, 1-0 win over managerless Southampton tonight.
The Saints would spurn a gilt-edged chance to level when Stern John lifted a truly ghastly penalty over David Marshall's bar in the 67th minute. Likewise they would hit the woodwork three times, but as the natives took out their fury on referee Andy Penn so the Canaries stole off into the night with three more huge points in the bag – 26 points from the last 39. That's the form of title winners.
With Roeder opting to go into battle with the same starting line-up that played so well against the Foxes ten days ago, the major interest lay on the bench where Darren Huckerby returned from his recent hip injection.
Whether the sight of the 32-year-old warming up among the substitutes would nip all the transfer talk in the bud was another matter. Logistically, if nothing else, it would take some doing to get from St Mary's on a Tuesday night to Toronto on a Thursday – and all with another six months of a Canary contract to run.
As for the Saints, still getting used to life after George Burley, the joint caretaker team of John Gorman and Jason Dodd at least opted to put their best foot forward with an attacking 4-3-3 formation that featured Stern John, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Grzegorz Rasiak floating around up front with the much-travelled Jason Euell detailed to pull the strings in midfield.
Opening-wise and it was pretty much honours-even. Rudi Skacel poked and probed his way down the Saints left and forced Darel Russell into a thumping early block; at the other end, Mo Camara and Ryan Bertrand worked themselves into a decent position only for the final, low cross to just elude a lurking Ched Evans.
With seven minutes on the clock and, in boxing terms, the home side moved ahead on points as Rasiak shuddered the base of David Marshall right-hand upright from 16-yards after a neat, one-two with Wright-Phillips. It was a slick move and a thumping drive. Warning had been duly served as City looked for their own response.
They got it in the 12th minute when Dion Dublin met a Mark Fotheringham corner with a big, strong, ten-yard header that Saints keeper Kelvin Davis could only thump up and over one-handed for a second corner. Point to Norwich.
The first real hic-cup of the evening came in the 22nd minute when Fotheringham gingerly left the field to be replaced by Matty Pattison.
Given the skipper's ability to orchestrate City's better moves, it was an enforced change that Roeder could have done without. In fairness, Pattison's first to passes were crisp and to feet as the Canaries continued to largely hold their own.
Albeit with the help of the woodwork (again) as Skacel flicked the top of the crossbar with a sweet, 27th minute free-kick that had Marshall beaten. The City keeper would dig another Skacel effort out with his feet just after the half-hour mark as the contest continued on its breezy little way.
John was next to take aim with a fabulous, 30-yard volley that rocketed no more than a yard over Marshall's bar. Advantage was slipping Southampton's way – even if 38-year-old Dublin continued to win every header, control every ball. He'd also accept a neat little invite from Darel Russell to whip a 25-yard volley under Davis' bar. Once again the Southampton keeper had to tip over.
Come the 44th minute, however, and suddenly it was Dublin's teenage side-kick threatening to steal the show. First Evans slammed a header against the base of Davis' left-hand post. Dublin almost reached the rebound; Evans then did – and forced a big, diving save out of an over-worked home keeper.
Now well and truly rattled, the Saints defence opened up again seconds later as Croft found himself free on the right and had the composure to look up and spot an unmarked Evans peeling off his marker in the inside-right channel.
Ball delivered at his feet, the teenager dropped his shoulder, sent the last defender right as he went left, took aim and blasted his fourth goal in 12 games away and beyond a horribly exposed Davis. Even it was via a sharp deflection off a despairing defender. So much for the smash, could City carry the grab off after the break?
No, looked the certain answer five minutes after the restart as Rasiak wriggled free. Once again the woodwork rode to Roeder's rescue as for the third time Saints rattled the frame of Marshall's goal. For now, however, their luck stood as the ball cannoned back off the base of a post.
It was certainly the time for big hearts and sharp minds – Jason Shackell leading by example with a wonderful, last-ditch intervention as Skacel sent a teasing low cross skidding through the Norwich box on the hour mark.
Seven minutes later and Saints should have levelled. Gary Doherty rose his hand in the path of substitute Adam Hammill's curling free-kick and referee Penn had little hesitation in pointing to the spot. Up stepped John and over went the ball – way over Marshall's bar. It was casual; it was slack; it was the last thing that Southampton needed. For Norwich, under the kosh and wobbling, it was heaven-sent.
Huckerby's arrival merely quickened the pulse. There appeared little wrong with his hip as he darted to the by-line in the 75th minute only for his final pull-back to just elude Dublin.
Southampton (4-3-3): Davis; Wright, Thomas, Vignal (O'Halloran, 65 mins), Davies; Euell, Skacel, Surman (Idiakez, 84 mins); Wright-Phillips (Hammill, 65 mins), John, Rasiak. Subs (not used): McGoldrick, Saganowski.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Marshall; Otsemobor, Camara (Huckerby, 72 mins), Doherty, Shackell; Croft, Russell, Fotheringham (Pattison, 22 mins), Bertrand; Dublin, Evans (Cureton, 63 mins). Subs (not used): Gilks, Spillane.
Man of the Match: Jason Shackell.
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