Norwich City’s interest in the nation’s cup competitions once again proved no more than fleeting as the Canaries slumped to a 1-0 home defeat by League One strugglers Leyton Orient.
The in-demand Paul Lambert might have the Midas touch league-wise, but it was another leaden effort from the Norfolk side as they fell at the very first hurdle courtesy of a thumping – and all-but free – header from former City loan signing Jimmy Smith.
Time and again – be it in the Carling Cup or the FA – the Canaries have plumbed some right depths when it comes to early cup exits.
They have wormed their way into the FA Cup fourth round just three times in the last 16 years.
And while this afternoon’s example wasn’t the worst example of the breed as the home side pushed till the very end for a leveller, it was still something of a bitter pill for the home faithful to swallow as they looked to celebrate Burnley’s foiled attempt to steal Lambert’s services with a decent cup success. No chance.
After a pedestrian first-half which top goal-scorer Grant Holt watched from the bench, Norwich upped both their pace and their interest in events after the break.
But even Holt’s belated arrival failed to ruffle too many an East End feather and it was the Os 2000-strong travelling support that were in a party mood come the end – that ticket to a potentially lucrative fourth round tie firmly in their hands.
“All credit to them – they deserve to go through,” admitted Lambert, afterwards.
“But the league is the most important thing,” added the City chief, clearly upset at event of the last 36 hours.
“It’s been ridiculous – I love it here.
“I’d never have imagined when I first came here that it would have gone so well – it’s a privilege to be a manager here. I can’t stop the speculation, but I never once came out and said: ‘I’m going to leave… But last night it was getting ridiculous. It was escalating and escalating.”
The City boss also revealing that Wes Hoolahan has agreed to a new Canary deal, one that ties him to Carrow Road through to 2014. One silver linging, at least to the day’s events.
“They’re all disappointed to lose, but I know what the bigger picture is.”
Yesterday’s fun and games behind him, Lambert sent out something of a mixed message team-wise – groin worry Hoolahan returned to the starting line up as both skipper Holt and midfield workhorse Andrew Crofts were rested for the Os visit.
Right-back Russell Martin took the captain’s armband – reprising a role he used to enjoy at Peterborough – as new-boy Aaron Wilbraham and Chrissy Martin were thrown ‘up top’.
Winger Anthony McNamee was handed something of a free role at the top of the diamond; David Fox sat at its base; Hoolahan off to the left; Korey Smith to its right.
Zak Whitbread and Leon Barnett became about the 27th central defensive pairing of the season as injuries and suspensions do their worst to upset the manager’s best-laid plans.
Wilbraham almost got a sniff in the sixth minute as strike pal Chris Martin cut the ball back from the by-line; the better chance fell to Alex Revell who forced young keeper Declan Rudd into an early save – the City Academy product grabbing the ball at the second attempt.
That apart, it was all bit of a quiet start; fireworks were being kept up the sleeve for next weekend’s cracker against second-placed Cardiff City, Craig Bellamy included.
The best thing – for the neutral, at least – would have been an early Os goal.
Which duly arrived with a little too much ease in the 20th minute to one-time City loanee Smith who thumped a decent header high and beyond Rudd after a decent short corner routine capped by a hanging Dean Cox cross.
The League One strugglers were here to make a game of it; much to the delight of their vocal away following.
Fox’s speculative 32nd minute drive from some 25-yards distant in the 33rd minute was about as good as it got Norwich chance-wise. Flat was the mood.
Hoolahan briefly lifted the spirits with a right-foot drive eight minutes before the break that Jamie Jones saved low to his right.
As the half-time whistle blew, it was time for Lambert to earn his keep; to show Burnley what they would be missing.
Change of shape apart, there was little immediate evidence of Holt arriving with the rescue act; Smith started to win more of the ball in his more central role; Hoolahan looked busier; the crowd picked up their voice as the players picked up the pace.
But it still needed a spark. And greater width. McNamee did, at least, deliver more of that in his re-worked second-half role.
But as his delivery failed to deliver the clear-cut chance Norwich desperately craved, so Os walked off into the night with a relatively comfortable third round success.
The fact that Orient keeper Jamie Jones made just one save of real note – finger-tipping a late McNamee dipper around his right upright – told its own story.