Ten-man Preston North End survived six, long minutes of injury time to deny the Canaries two, more big home points this afternoon on the back of City’s second, successive 1-1 home draw against lowly opposition.
Once again, Norwich were guilty of shooting themselves in the foot. Against injury-ravaged Doncaster Rovers, it was Adam Drury’s late own goal that let all three point slip through their grasp.
Against bottom-of-the-table North End, it was Wes Hoolahan’s horrible, 71st minute penalty miss that let the Lilywhites off the hook after Grant Holt’s 16th strike of the season had wiped out Chris Brown’s inevitable strike against his former employers.
Nor will events of those final minutes done Aaron Wilbraham’s City fortunes any favours. He had the best chance of a late, late winner as injury reduced Preston to ten men – the former MK Dons striker slicing a far post volley nastily wide as the Canaries pressed in vain for that crucial, winning strike.
In the end they had to settle for just a point – and the knowledge that had Hoolahan been a little less clever with his spot-kick and not dinked the softest of cocky lobs back into the waiting keeper’s arms, Norwich could have barged their way right into that second-spot reckoning after Swansea’s 1-0 defeat at Scunthorpe.
With Nottingham Forest also slipping up, it was a big opportunity lost. One, big blast from 12-yards out and the world could have looked an altogether different place tonight.
Afterwards and City boss Paul Lambert refused to criticise Hoolahan.
“He’s been huge for us in games, so I’m not going to criticise him,” said the City chief.
“He felt confident enough to do what he did. It’s something he chose to do at that particular moment and I’m not going to criticise him.”
But, yes, he would have preferred his star play-maker to have leathered it. As would 25,000 others.
“It doesn’t matter how you hit them – whether you chip them or not. If they don’t go in, then it’s an opportunity missed. They look great when they come off, but when they don’t they are always going to get criticised for it. But I won’t – he’s been excellent for me.”
Not that Lambert is looking for a repeat. “Whilst I’m at this football club, he won’t be doing that again…”
Pre-match and the Canary boss had a full week to count his injury blessings – and name the same side that racked up that comfortable 2-0 away win at Barnsley last weekend.
It left the big ‘Second striker…’ question as much unanswered as it was ahead of the Rovers game. But given Lambert is never one for pigeon-holes, so Wesley Hoolahan found himself hanging around in the shadow of skipper Holt for today’s nPower Championship clash.
On paper – and, indeed, all-too-often on the pitch – Norwich still had more than enough attacking prowess in midfield to dismiss the likely challenge of the bottom-of-the-table Deepdale outfit, still looking for their first win under new boss Phil Brown.
His luck appeared not to have changed when Nathan Ellington pulled up in the pre-match warm-up. One-time City youngster Paul Hayes was the biggest beneficiary – suddenly thrown into the Lilywhites’ starting plans.
Best moment of the opening exchanges came in the eighth minute when Crofts’ perfect dummy opened up a shooting opportunity for a lurking Hoolahan; his 18-yard, left-foot effort skipping no more than a yard wide of a far upright.
It was something of a high-point chance-wise. Certainly first-half wise. Preston weren’t brilliant but – for now – they were doing enough to keep their hosts at arm’s length from goal.
Otherwise angled balls would flash through the Preston six-yard box – or else be cleared by the first defender with a yellow Canary shirt waiting to pounce a yard behind. It was, in short, one of them.
And in the on-loan Leon Cort, Preston had something of an immovable object at the heart of a stubborn defence.
The start of the second period didn’t bring any immediate change; Hoolahan lifted a 52nd minute cross high, wide and less than handsome – much to Lambert’s evident frustration on the sidelines. He, like the rest of Carrow Road, awaited that final ball.
Lambert’s mood wasn’t helped by Zak Whitbread falling heavily onto his back after climbing above Eddie Johnson. He disappeared on 55 minutes to give Rob Edwards his Canary debut.
Cue Brown’s arrival for another Canary old-boy Paul Hayes.
Within a minute he was squeezing onside, controlling the ball with the top of his chest with his first touch; volleying past a startled John Ruddy with his second. It was his first goal of the season for the Lilywhites; inevitable that it should come against his one-time employers.
The lead would, however, last little more than 90 seconds as Preston keeper Iain Turner could only push Surman’s outside-of-the-boot effort into the path of Holt who, from no more than six-yards out, tucked home an easy, 61st minute leveller – his 16th goal of the season.
City’s fortune – in theory – should have delivered a second in the 72nd minute when Darren Carter was rightly adjudged to have handled a Russell Martin shot. Up stepped Hoolahan and dinked the softest of spot-kicks back into the keeper’s bemused hands.
Such cheeky, little lobs look great when they go in; when they don’t…