City boss Paul Lambert left Wigan tonight quietly satisfied after the Canaries produced a typically spirited performance to start their great Premiership adventure with a 1-1 draw and a much-prized away point.
The Scot’s managerial mantra has always been very simple – if you can’t win a game, just make sure you don’t lose it. And courtesy of Wes Hoolahan’s 45th minute leveller, the Canaries did just that.
They have a point on the board and, as of a little after five o’clock on the 13th August, 2011, were sat fourth in the Premier League. In a Champions League spot.
“Coming away from home we’ve got to be reasonably happy with a point,” the City chief told SkySports afterwards, team and manager followed north by 4,500 Canary supporters.
“And, overall, I’m delighted with them.”
Norwich’s cause wasn’t wholly helped by a first-half error from Ritchie de Laet that eventually enabled Ben Watson to convert from the penalty spot.
But demonstrating the kind of rugged resilience that will be needed in abundance this season, the Norfolk side hung in there and got their due rewards with Hoolahan’s leveller on the stroke of half-time as Steve Morison bagged his first big assist of the campaign.
Albeit with a little helping hand from Wigan keeper Ali Al-Habsi who failed to hold Morison’s deflected cross and as the ball popped out of his hands, there was Hoolahan – sharp as a knife – to smash the ball home.
“Ritchie made a mistake, but redeemed himself at the end there with a double block,” said Lambert. “But he’s only young – and that’s what happens with young players.
“And I thought we were a little bit unlucky to go behind, anyway. I thought we were on the ascendancy. But that’s what happens when you’re playing against top players – they can hurt you.”
There was also the thought that the initial contact on Franco di Santo might have been just outside the box. It was, on the replay, all very untidy; de Laet’s biggest sin happened 30-yards further up the pitch as di Santo robbed the on-loan United defender and sped away on goal.
Watson’s thumping penalty to John Ruddy’s right then completed one of those moments were both heads and hearts might have dropped as luck, briefly, deserted Lambert’s men.
But it was that ‘winning’ spirit that City offered which, clearly, impressed Lambert the most. They dug in and dug in – and can take distinct heart from events at Loftus Road where fellow new-boys QPR were welcomed to the Premiership with a 4-0 home defeat by Bolton Wanderers.
‘We capitulated,’ were the two words on Neil Warnock’s lips tonight; not a phrase you hear Lambert use too often.
“That’s one thing I can never question – and that’s their attitude to the game. I always know what I am going to get from them and they’ve been a credit to themselves, let alone the football club,” said Lambert, with many a more awkward question likely to be asked in West London tonight.
“We can go away and be really pleased with what we’ve done,” he added. “Two years ago we were in League One – that’s the magnitude of what we’ve done.”
His opposite number Roberto Martinez was typically warm in his praise; such is the likely tightness of this league when it comes to the bottom eight or nine clubs, privately the Spaniard may well be seeing today’s result as two big points that got away.
In public, however, he was impressed.
“In the opening games you always face difficult, difficult games,” Martinez told Sky afterwards.
“You have to give huge credit to Norwich City they’ve come with a huge winning mentality and full of enthusiasm, as you’d expect, and they did really well.”
Typically, Lambert pulled a surprise or two out of the bag team-wise. No start for the impressive Kyle Naughton; likewise winger Elliott Bennett. Zak Whitbread got the nod ahead of Leon Barnett alongside de Laet at centre-half; back from injury came Andrew Crofts to lend the legs and the muscle alongside David Fox.
Andrew Surman’s two goals in the dress rehearsal against Parma did enough for him to start, while Lambert’s attacking intent was clear from the start as Grant Holt and Morison went into battle together – no shoring it up from the start with just one striker and a packed midfield.
The Canaries set their stall out to get all three points; that they left Wigan with just the one is a decent, solid opener.
And they will have set out an early marker, too.
That whatever else transpires over the next nine months, they won’t be found wanting when it comes to either spirit or resilience.