City boss Paul Lambert this evening admitted his players were “running on empty” after the 1-1 draw away at Middlesbrough took the Canaries into that second, automatic promotion spot.
Grant Holt’s 12th goal of the season was wiped out some ten minutes later by an own goal from the returning Leon Barnett.
But with Swansea losing 2-1 away at Leicester City, the Norfolk side were able to slip into second spot.
Fourth-placed Leeds United travel away to fifth-placed Cardiff City tomorrow night. A win for either would see one or other leap-frog back over Lambert’s men.
It is likely to remain nip-and-tuck for the rest of the season – even if this weekend’s FA Cup clash with Leyton Orient offers a brief respite from the unforgiving slog of a Championship winter.
“They’re really, really tired,” admitted Lambert afterwards, with another name added to his casualty list – Wes Hoolahan.
“Wes hurt his groin, so we were down to the bare bones. So that’s a big, big point – and a great desire not to get beat when they were running on empty.”
Lambert’s sick and wounded already includes the likes of Elliott Ward, Andrew Surman and David Fox; Hoolahan is probably his highest-profile knock of late. Gunners starlet Henri Lansbury notwithstanding.
The return of both Barnett and Simon Lappin enabled Lambert to make two changes; a rare start for Owain Tudur Jones allowed for a third as Hoolahan, Chrissy Martin and Zak Whitbread were rested following their sapping efforts in the 1-0 win over league leaders QPR.
It was, said Lambert, asking too much of his squad; but for the frozen pitch at Crystal Palace on Boxing Day, Norwich would have had four games in the space of just nine days.
“It’s too much – too much to ask the lads to go again and again,” the City chief told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards.
“But I can’t fault the lads for their effort – they gave me absolutely everything again.”
Hoolahan’s loss for any length of time would be a big blow; he is, invariably, somewhere near the creative heart of this City side. Caution is clearly Lambert’s watchword.
“Wes has got a groin problem at the moment and if I took the risk of two games in three days, it is a big, big ask – and then you might lose him for the next three or four.
“It was a decision that I had to take out of his hands and I’ve got to protect these lads.”
Given such thinking, it will be interesting to see whether Lambert deems a third round FA Cup tie against Orient is important enough to rush one of his star midfield turns back for; whether – given the way that City’s league campaign is fast shaping up – all would be better served by giving the Dubliner another week’s R&R.
The pace is likely to be unrelenting – whether or not the Canaries progress far in the FA Cup this season.
Either way, Lambert wasn’t under-playing the value of today’s draw. It kept the Canary pot bubbling nicely; it kept them unbeaten; it kept them firmly on course for a fascinating end to the season.
“Sometimes a point away from home is mammoth – and that might just be pivotal come the end of it all.”
It was interesting to note Lambert’s change of language; of late he has been aiming solely at that 50-point safety mark; you got a sense that with 43 points on the board this evening and 21 games left to go, he had kind of figured that Norwich would find the required seven points from somewhere.
They now have a platform upon which to really stretch their legs and go for it down the final, finishing straight – provided, of course, they can find enough fresh legs to carry them over the line.
Hence the early exit of skipper Holt.
“Grant Holt has been mammoth for me – and I’ve got to protect people who I think are going to be huge for me in the run-in,” said Lambert, his gaze still looking upwards.
His eyes were also on the New Year sales with the January transfer window now firmly open for business.
“We need a little bit of help – we do,” said Lambert, having dipped his toe into the market already with the arrival of Aaron Wilbraham from MK Dons. Mention has been made of adding two more faces to his squad.
“But everyone knows the financial situation of the club – I can’t produce money out of thin air. The club will give us as much money as they can; it’s up to us to go and find those who we think might be able to come in and give us a hand.”
A hand to get to safety – and then to push on again to who knows where…
“It’s a long, long way to go, but we’re right in there,” he admitted.