A pulsating Bank Holiday clash settled by Russell Martin’s lone, 10th minute strike saw the Canaries power into the New Year with real belief and hope of oh-so much more to come in 2011 as they inflicted a rare away defeat on Championship leaders QPR.
Neil Warnock’s men had lost just once on their travels before this afternoon’s nerve-shredding encounter in Norfolk as the Rs – reduced to ten-men for the final 40 minutes – continued to threaten a late leveller until the very end.
Substitute Patrick Agyemang came closest to breaking Canary hearts after the home side delivered arguably their finest performance of the season when it mattered most.
Chris Martin had the freedom of the half to put the game – finally – beyond QPR’s reach deep into injury time only for Paddy Kenny to again deny the Canaries with a fine, diving save to his left. Man of the Match Wes Hoolahan would dink another into Kenny’s waiting arms as the second goal proved just beyond Paul Lambert’s side.
In the end, however, it came not to matter; the Canaries held firm and another famous victory was their’s to celebrate long into the Bank Holiday night. Third in the table; still just that one point shy of second-placed Swansea.
“Given the players that we’ve got out – that was remarkable,” said Lambert, refusing to contemplate the ‘P’ word – be it play-off or promotion.
“Ask me on the final day of the season – if we’re still on a run then,” said the City chief, still looking no further forward than that 50-point safety mark.
It was the fact that he had to make so many changes that topped his agenda.
“If you talk about Leon (Barnett) and Elliott (Ward) being out and Adam having been out since October, then it’s absolute miracle what they’ve done – an absolute miracle.”
Aaron Wilbraham’s debut was another big, plus point.
“I thought he was excellent – he tired towards the end but that was only to be expected,” he added
Lambert has never been one to shy away from ringing the changes – enforced or not, the Canaries took to the field with no fewer than four fresh faces from the side that beat the Blades 4-2 on Bank Holiday Monday.
Simon Lappin’s absence was enforced via a fifth booking; all that did was facilitate Adam Drury’s return to the fray after his injury lay-off.
David Fox was ruled out with a calf knock; Hoolahan earned his due reward for that festive hat-trick.
Simeon Jackson and Jens Berthel Askou, however, found themselves on the bench to offer Wilbraham his first start less than 48 hours after his arrival from MK Dons, whilst alongside Michael Nelson stood the unfamiliar form of Zak Whitbread – making his first City appearance since last Easter Monday.
Formation-wise and it was diamond-with-a-difference time; Martin dropping into the little hole behind Holt and Wilbraham; Hoolahan being on left-point duty.
It is a role that, in fairness, suits Martin’s game almost as much as Hoolahan’s – a point he proved in the tenth minute as he drove forward out of that space and into the Rangers’ box. First drive blocked by Clint Hill, the ball fell kindly to waiting namesake Russell.
His low, 16-yard effort had fortune on its side as it appeared to take a tiny clip off Leon Clarke’s back heel before nestling happily inside the near post. City’s start to 2011 had got off to the required flier.
City almost doubled their lead on 21 minutes as Nelson’s far post header found the ever-busy Kenny dropping a right clanger – the ball finally ending up in the net off the base of his right upright only for new-boy Wilbraham to be penalised for handball. Or off-side. Either way, it was all proving something of an uncomfortable afternoon for Colin and Co.
They rarely looked like a side that had lost just the once on their travels this season as Andrew Crofts and Whitbread, in particular, withstood anything that the Rs could throw at them.
At the other end, Martin (Chris) and Hoolahan (Wesley) were full of invention; Holt and Wilbraham full of running.
Two changes at the break suggested that Warnock was less than impressed with his charges; the much-travelled Agyemang was not the worst player at this level to have sat there waiting for the manager’s call.
That plan went out of the window within six minutes as centre-half Connolly was sent off for a last-man clip on Holt as he wriggled free and in on goal. It was all pretty deserved; his sin was to let the City skipper to wrong-side him in the first place – just as he did to Nick Montgomery in that equally thrilling United game.
Spirits and hopes raised again by a second red card in a week, Kenny needed to save sharply from a Martin free-kick; Hoolahan’s follow-up was equally smartly blocked by a desperate Rs defender. It looked set to be a long 40 minutes for the Championship favourites.
It should have been all over in the 65th minute as Martin released Hoolahan down the left; his low cross fell back into the path of the City striker as he drove with pace and menace into the Rs’ box. Alas, his final scuffy shot lacked both and Kenny could palm away to his right.
Norwich were turning the screw – hard – and the fans were luvin’ it, just luvin’ it. But they were still just that one goal to the good.
As Agyemang almost reminded everyone with a 74th minute free header that dropped just an inch or so wide of John Ruddy’s right upright.
City were living on the edge when their performance level should have had them out of sight. In the end, however, they had done just enough – and the Carrow Road faithful rose as one to salute their New Year heroes.