City boss Paul Lambert admitted that tonight’s dramatic comeback against Southend “means a lot” after super sub Oli Johnson struck twice in the last 12 minutes to give Norwich all three points.
A battling Shrimpers side looked like making the short trip back to Essex with a shock win for their efforts, after Scott Vernon’s 45th minute effort put Steve Tilson’s men in front.
But Johnson really did make all the difference after being introduced as a 68th minute substitute and his two goals, the second coming with the four minutes of stoppage time almost up, mean City’s lead at the top of League One remains at three points.
It wasn’t the Canaries’ best performance; they gave the ball away more often than usual. But the table-toppers certainly never know when they’re beaten and Johnson’s last-gasp winner means there will be some sore heads in Norfolk tomorrow morning.
A win is a win but with the Canaries staring their second home defeat in just four days firmly in the face, the significance of this success should not be underestimated.
“It means a lot to everybody at the football club,” said an ecstatic Lambert afterwards. “Coming back and scoring a late winner – it’s terrific.
“We’ve got a great spirit at the club and the fans are playing their part. The atmosphere was absolutely sensational tonight.
“You get frustrated because you’ve got so much of the ball but you’ve just got to hope that someone has that bit of magic and you get the break. We did and I thought we deserved it.”
And what about ‘Magic’ Johnson? That was certainly something special…
“Every time he has come on for us, he’s made something happen and you can see that the crowd have taken to him really, really quickly.
“He’s got a terrific willingness to learn and after his two goals, his confidence will be sky high. He’s not long out of non-league football but Oli’s been terrific.”
The Canaries were up for the battle from minute one and could have taken the lead in the game’s opening seconds but full debutant Anthony McNamee’s cute cutback was hit wide by Stephen Hughes.
It was turning into the McNamee show in the first ten minutes and his darting runs were causing the visitors no end of problems.
Grant Holt and Chris Martin were looking to get on the end of his pinpoint deliveries and the extra width in the new-look 4-4-2 formation was giving City an extra option in attack.
And on 15 minutes, it was the ex-Swindon winger again who was doing the damage and his powerful whipped corner somehow evaded Holt, Michael Nelson and Gary Doherty.
The home side had to wait another 11 minutes for a decent effort but what a chance it was. Good work from McNamee and Russell Martin on the right hand side played in the defender’s namesake but after a neat twist to get away from the defender, his curling shot went agonisingly wide.
The longer the half went on, the more frustrated the home faithful got and on 38, Lambert’s men enjoyed another great chance.
Wes Hoolahan fed Martin on the left-hand side but the 21-year-old couldn’t pull the trigger and when the ball fell to Simon Lappin, the Scot’s rasping shot was excellently tipped over by Mildenhall in the Shrimpers goal.
It got worse for the league leaders in first-half stoppage time however and Vernon’s effort really should have been prevented.
Michael Rose – who was having a difficult evening – failed to cope with Damien Scannell when a ‘hoof’ was the easiest option and the winger’s cross fell to Vernon, whose deflected effort hit the roof of the net.
The half-time whistle soon blew and the natives weren’t happy.
The second 45 started in much the same fashion as the first and Holt had a glorious chance to put his side level.
McNamee was the architect again and his chipped ball fell perfectly to the Canary skipper, but his powerful shot clipped the post.
City were pressing and probing but to be fair to the Shrimpers, they were putting every limb on the line, desperately trying to protect their lead.
On 61, the ever-busy Holt headed a corner over and minutes earlier, a Hoolahan shot arrowed wide. At this point it looked like being ‘one of those nights’ and matters didn’t improve five minutes later.
A superb Lappin through-ball was picked up by the tricky Hoolahan but after beating his man, he passed – somewhat oddly – to Martin whose shot was saved.
Even in the normally quiet City Stand, ‘you should have bloody shot’ was the gist of the supporters’ comments.
Despite City’s constant pressure, the visitors had a good opportunity to extend their lead on 73 minutes when goalscorer Vernon was through on goal but Martin (R) managed, just, to swipe it clear.
The game then turned on its head five minutes later when Norwich got their goal – finally. The impressive Hoolahan flighted a wonderful ball to Holt and his swivelled shot was well parried by Mildenhall – only for Johnson to slot home.
It set up a grandstand finale but the Essex club had two opportunities to retake the lead before City’s dramatic winner, most notably when Simon Francis’ free-kick from the edge of the box was clawed out by Fraser Forster.
But up popped Johnson with just seconds on the clock and his near post header from McNamee’s corner could turn out to be one of the season’s most vital strikes.
City: Forster; R Martin, Doherty, Nelson, Rose; McNamee, Hughes (Johnson 68), Lappin (Smith 68), Hoolahan; C Martin, Holt. Subs not used: Steer, McVeigh, Gill, Spillane, Adeyemi.