Canary skipper Grant Holt proved once again a man for this season and, ideally, many more as he inspired City to a crucial 2-1 home win over Nottingham Forest this evening.
It was enough to propel the Norfolk side back into second spot ahead of tomorrow’s next, full round of Championship games – and made a mockery of the mid-week fears that a ‘hamstring’ injury would rule the 30-year-old out for the rest of the season.
There he was, rising powerfully to head his 22nd goal of the season home after ten minutes as Norwich levelled Nathan Tyson’s bizarre opener.
There he was, some 80 minutes later, chasing the ball down deep into the Forest half as the Canaries hung for three, huge points.
In between, he provided the perfect assist in the shape of the through-ball for Andrew Surman’s winner. All in all, quite a night for all concerned – particularly given the sheer mental and physical effort needed to wrest such an important result out of Norwich’s third game in six days.
“That was as big a result as we’ve had in our time here,” said Lambert simply, having made the call at 10am this morning to throw both Holt and Wes Hoolahan back into the fray, hamstrings both permitting.
“The players have been brilliant – absolutely brilliant. And they deserve every bit of credit that is coming their way,” added the City chief, eyes still set on that biggest of prizes.
Interestingly, the atmosphere was not lost on Forest chief Billy Davies who offered a rare tribute from a visiting manager that – potentially – has just started to see a play-off place slip out of his grasp.
“The one thing that strikes me as an outsider looking in is the sense of togetherness that goes from top to bottom at Norwich – from the players, the supporters and everyone,” said Davies, a pal of Lambert’s from their days together at Motherwell and St Mirren.
“And I’d just like to wish my old team-mate Paul Lambert all the very best,” he added.
If anyone wished for a more freaky opening goal, then they would be hard pressed to top Tyson’s third minute opener.
A hopeful punt into the inside right channel found John Ruddy out, ready on the corner of his box to thump the ball into Row Z as Tyson closed him down.
Alas, the ball never reached its intended destination. Instead, Tyson turned to block and the ball cannoned up and off his back – and gently looped into an empty net some 22-yards distant.
It was a truly wretched way to concede an opening goal in a game of such significance. Forest could barely believe their luck. And nor could the gathered Faithful.
The lead lasted just over seven minutes before Holt wrote his way ever deeper into Canary legend. David Fox swung a deep free-kick towards the far post where the 30-year-old wrestled his way above a struggling Guy Moussi to power an easy header home for his 22nd goal of the season.
The celebrations were long, joyous and from the heart. This was a man who at ten o’clock last Tuesday night was all-but ruled out for the rest of the season.
He could barely walk come the end of that 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road. Some 72 hours later he could walk across the Wensum and no-one would bat an eye-lid.
Simeon Jackson came oh-so close to adding the second on 25 minutes as he sprang clear and onto the end of a dinked little through-ball from Hoolahan.
His clip over an otherwise stranded Lee Camp would have left the Canadian with a tap-in. In the event, Camp got just enough of a palm on the ball to collect it at the second attempt.
Forest, in fairness, had their moment in the 28th minute as Moussi drove against the base of a post from 15-yards; it was that kind of game – fraught with promotion peril for either side.
Forest had already had one warning about their offside trap when Jackson was hauled back, ball in net. Eight minutes from the break and Holt turned provider and Surman gleefully stepped clear and clipped the ball over a hopelessly exposed Camp.
After the break and whilst City continued to look good value for their lead, it was still only the one goal. Poke and probe as they might, the game was there to be taken out of Forest’s reach as Jackson met a floating Holt cross with a too-soft header and the skipper himself would blaze high and over from a difficult angle.
Without that third and, in every likelihood, final goal, Norwich would be left to live dangerously on their wits.
The sight of ex-Canary Robert Earnshaw joining the fray with some 15 minutes left of the contest merely fed that anxiety. He has previous – against all-too many of his former clubs.
Holt would see an 80th minute chance whipped off his forehead; Jackson would skim another headed chance wide moments later.
Three games into six days – for both clubs – was beginning to take its tolls. Minds and legs were beginning to weaken as the clock ticked down.
Jackson would even clip the base of the post as City continued to camp themselves in the Forest half with Zak Whitbread and Elliott Ward on hand to smash anything out of harm’s way as and when the occasion demanded.
Paul Konchesky helped. A wild injury-time lunge on Surman resulted in a straight red and a few more seconds of time wasted as everyone held their breath for that final whistle.
It arrived right on cue.