A second-half hat-trick from substitute Wes Hoolahan that featured two sure, spot-kicks condemned struggling visitors Sheffield United to a 4-2 defeat and sent the Canaries roaring into the New Year.
A goal adrift and lucky to survive a loud penalty appeal against them at the break, Canary skipper Grant Holt drew his opposite number Nick Montgomery into a rash challenge in the 64th minute for spot-kick No1.
Six minutes from the end of normal time and it was a Chrissy Martin flick that rolled down the arm of a hapless Kyle Bartley that delivered the second – both of which were calmly despatched into first one corner and then the other by Hoolahan.
It was all too much for Blades’ Stephen Quinn – sent off in the game’s dying moments by the over-worked Phil Crossley for, apparently, ‘head-butting’ a Canary player as goodwill to all men went AWOL.
Moments later and a desperately ragged United side were left wide open as Holt drove forward and rolled the ball into the path of a gleeful Hoolahan, who had the simplest of tap-ins from some 14-yards out to complete his first hat-trick for the Canaries.
It was enough to leave City just a point shy of the second, automatic promotion spot following yet another dramatic, second-half turnaround after first-half strikes from Andy Reid and Richard Cresswell threatened to ruin Norfolk’s Christmas celebrations.
“It was a brilliant hat-trick – there’s an art to taking penalties,” said Lambert afterwards, well aware that Lady Luck smiled for that first penalty. And the one that wasn’t given before the break.
“If that penalty had been given against me I wouldn’t have been too happy,” said the City chief; United’s caretaker boss John Carver was, indeed, duly ‘livid’ – seeing six, big decisions go against him.
From a Norwich perspective, to be one point short of second at the mid-way point was “unbelievable”, said Lambert, as the fairy tale continues.
“But I think when you’ve got a fan-base as vibrant as Norwich you’ve got to hit the ground running,” said the City chief. “But the way it went last season was brilliant and its just gone on from there.”
City’s festivities didn’t get off to the biggest of bangs with the lunchtime news that both Henri Lansbury and Elliott Ward would be missing from this afternoon’s encounter.
Both could now be out “for a few weeks”; Lansbury’s hamstring injury could yet ensure that he doesn’t feature again for his part-time employees. Ward is out with a calf strain; again for a few weeks.
With Leon Barnett out suspended after the red mist descended in that home defeat by Portsmouth, it was very much the Class of 09 at centre-back as Michael Nelson partnered Jens Berthel Askou at the heart of that Canary defence.
They did at least have a returning Andrew Crofts to mop up in front of them; together they would hope to ensure that Ched Evans’ 22nd birthday celebrations fell a little flat on his return to Carrow Road.
The game was barely three minutes old before Blades found themselves rocking on the backfoot. Holt’s run down the right was finished off with a low cross that Nyron Nosworthy shanked onto his own crossbar. The Canary skipper appeared intent on carrying on just where he had left off at The Ricoh ten days ago.
The other point of note was a new role for Russell Martin; to be found sweeping up behind that Nelson-Askou combination. One way to combat Master Evans as Korey Smith found himself filling in at right-back.
Not that either could do much about Reid’s opener. It was a peach of a 17th minute free-kick; up and down, into the top corner from some 25-yards distant. The lad has always had that ability; hence the big money switch to Spurs.
City’s response was little more than two minutes coming; Nelson granted all the time and space anyone would ever need to head a hanging David Fox free-kick all-too easily home.
At either end of the pitch, Nelson was winning more than his fair share of big headers; that said, however, neither defence looked wholly at ease as Evans probed at one end and Holt threatened at the other.
It was Cresswell who made the most of some real festive rustiness just before the half-hour mark; Mark Yeates’ clever little dummy was all too much for City and the former Leicester striker found himself with all the space he needed to pop United’s second into the far bottom corner – Norwich guilty of being far too late to close the ball.
Coincidence or not, it all found Russell Martin returning to his more familiar beat at right-back as City’s hopes of keeping it tight for the first half hour went out of the proverbial window.
They almost flew on and across the Wensum three minutes before the break when Nelson was given the huge benefit of the doubt as Evans wriggled free and fell two yards into the City area. Only to be penalised for his apparent sins.
The break brought the first change as Hoolahan replaced Simeon Jackson; Lambert and the Faithful both trusting that a little diamond might sparkle before the afternoon was out.
Hoolahan didn’t disappoint with a surely-taken spot-kick in the 64th minute after Blades skipper Montgomery was adjudged to have felled Holt in a re-run of the Nelson-Evans tangle before the break. City got the break that United didn’t – such is your luck when you’re managerless and all-but in the drop zone.
A point that Hoolahan hammed home in the 84th minute with his second penalty of the afternoon after Bartley had handled a Martin flick.
This time there was no doubt; nor was there with Wesley’s spot-kick – despatched with equal aplomb deep into the opposite corner.