City boss Paul Lambert was the first to admit that his side never hit the highs of which they are capable of in yesterday’s 3-1 home win over Exeter City – even if it left the Norfolk side climbing to new highs in the League One table.
For with his one-time employers Wycombe Wanderers doing everyone at Carrow Road a favour when they pegged Leeds United back to 1-1 draw, so this weekend’s ninth, straight home success ensured that Lambert and Co have now all-but made that second spot berth their own.
And they remain firmly on a roll; one eye glancing at that title prize.
Even the fact that the manager picked up December’s Coca-Cola League One manager of the month award shortly before kick-off failed to knock the Canaries out of their stride – that particular curse failed to materialise as goals No21 and No22 for the season from skipper Grant Holt and a mere 14th for Chrissy Martin ended Exeter’s resistance.
“I think we deserved to win the game – but we never played as well as we have been,” admitted the City chief afterwards, his colours once more tied firmly to the Norwich mast after all the mid-week headlines concerning the Burnley vacancy.
The fact that the Scot was so adamant that he had a big job to do in East Anglia has merely endeared himself yet further to the Barclay faithful; the two were waving to eachother like long-lost pals as the Canaries cruised over the finishing line in the game’s last ten minutes.
It wasn’t, as Lambert pointed out, without the odd hic-cup. Keeper Fraser Forster had to be at his instinctive best in the first-half to deny the visitors as Norwich failed to build on Holt’s eighth minute opener.
It was left to Martin to apparently make the game safe, only for Town old-boy Marcus Stewart to set the nerves a-jangling again with Exeter’s 80th minute response. Two minutes later and a fine, solo effort from Holt – albeit set in motion by yet another gem of a pass from Wes Hoolahan – finally wrapped up proceedings.
“You’ve got to give the players credit – they kept going,” he said. “But we can’t play brilliant every single game. But it just goes to show you that there’s a bit of resilience there – a bit of a drive and a hunger to go out and win football matches.”
Hoolahan was fairly instrumental in proceedings; it was his, pin-point cross that gave Holt a bread-and-butter header to open the scoring; it was his vision that unlocked the Exeter defence completely eight minutes from time and enabled Holt to stroll in City’s third and decisive goal.
Keep that trio fit and bubbling and the combined might of Messrs Holt, Hoolahan and Martin should see Norwich home with comfort.
“You get the second goal and you think you’re there,” Lambert told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards.
“But football’s like that. Sometimes you get a knock-back – and we got the goal against us,” said Lambert, happy to give Exeter due credit for making it a contest.
The fact that they were a goal down within those first ten minutes clearly forced their hand; but there was spirit, invention and determination to their play – all belying the fact that they had, by every account, a 12-hour coach journey from hell en route to Carrow Road this weekend.
“Credit to Exeter – they came with the two lads up front and gave us a game,” said Lambert, who used this weekend’s clash to field one of his new arrivals.
Oli Johnson stepped off the substitutes’ bench for the final ten minutes; the paperwork for Zak Whitbread failed to be processed in time for him to be eligible. In theory, the Millwall centre-half could be involved in Tuesday night’s re-arranged trip to Walsall.
The world and his frozen wife are, however, expecting that game to go the way of the first – ageing braziers not withstanding.
“He was lively,” was the manager’s verdict on the former Stockport striker’s opening bow. A smart turn and a wicked curler almost ensured a sensational start. There is, it would appear, something for Lambert and his coaching team to work with.
“As I said, he’s a young kid – he’s an unknown quantity. But the spell he was on, he showed people what he can do.”
But while Johnson may still have rather more to do to convince everyone that – on the basis of ten, promising minutes – he is the genuine article, Lamber certainly looks the real deal.
His place in the supporters affections is certainly not in doubt.
“Even when you’re winning, you can’t please all the people, but I like to think that there’s a rapport there – the fans have been excellent with me,” said the one-time European Cup winner – proving a rather more popular Scottish import than the luckless Peter Grant.
Haul in Leeds over the course of an enthralling spring and the Hall Of Fame awaits.
“Leeds are still a bit of a distance away, but as I said after the Wycombe game all we can do is to try and win every game and eat away at their lead,” said the City chief, his weekend complete with the news from Elland Road.
“It just goes to show that no team has a divine right to win every game and Wycombe went up there and got a terrific result.”