Some 17 years of heart-break and hard labour finally bore fruit at the Reebok Stadium, Bolton, this afternoon as the Canaries racked up their first away win in the Barclays Premier League since December, 1994.
First-half strikes from Anthony Pilkington and man of the moment Bradley Johnson – albeit followed by the now regulatory penalty for the opposition after the interval – proved enough to give City a priceless 2-1 away win.
Their cause was helped, in part, by the 45th minute dismissal of Ivan Klasnic for a clash of heads with Marc Tierney, but that duly provided a double-edged sword as ten-man Bolton upped their game after the interval and pushed the Canaries onto the back foot.
Martin Petrov converted a spot-kick after Leon Barnett stepped across David Ngog and but for a fabulous injury time save from the returning John Ruddy to deny a flashing Ngog header, the home side could have ripped a draw from the jaws of a famous City victory.
In the end, however, the Canaries delivered for their 2,500 travelling away supporters and left City chief Paul Lambert with a huge smile of relief on his face this evening.
The first Premiership win – and away from home, to boot – was off his back. City were back in the big time and back in business win-wise.
“I thought we deserved it to be honest – right from the off we were excellent,” said Lambert, on a good day for the three newly-promoted teams. Swansea beat West Bromwich Albion 3-0 at home, while QPR added to Wolves’ worries with a 3-0 away win. All three teams can look down from ‘mid-table security’ at more established Premiership sides struggling to get their act together.
Albeit five games in.
“I’ve never had a problem with confidence,” added the City chief, after fears that the 1-0 home defeat by the Baggies last weekend would sap at the players’ belief.
“They seem to bounce back whether they draw or get beaten, and that is testament to the way they played today.
“I thought we were really comfortable up to the penalty, then Bolton threw everything at us. That put us on the back foot for five or 10 minutes but we fought through.”
For the management team it was an afternoon of big calls and bold decisions as Lambert made six changes to the side that lost 1-0 at home to West Bromwich Albion last week.
Russell Martin was the big beneficiary as he stepped across to partner Barnett at centre-half as Ritchie de Laet was removed out of the firing line. The fact that Whites boss Owen Coyle opted to withdraw skipper Kevin Davies at the break as he re-arranged his ten-man side may, in part, be a reflection of just how well Martin mastered his new brief.
The changes continued in midfield where back came David Fox and Wes Hoolahan with Steve Morison handed the lone role up top with Hoolahan, nominally, sat just off him. And, of course, there was a return for locally-born Pilkington on the left; a first away start for Elliott Bennett on the right.
Out went skipper Grant Holt, Welsh international Andrew Crofts and Chrissy Martin – decisions that the manager could have had cause to regret had both the result and the performance not justified his actions.
Pilkington stabbed Norwich ahead after touches from first Barnett and then Morison allowed the Darwen-born winger to nick his first goal for the Canaries from little more than four yards out.
Three minutes before the break and Johnson’s blossoming form was crowned by his first goal for his new employers as the Bolton defence once again parted on cue and allowed the Canary midfielder a free run and downward header into the bottom right corner of the keeper’s goal.
The delivery from David Fox merely invited such a result; the marking and the covering, defensively, was everything Norwich could have hoped for and everything Coyle would have feared having shipped five goals last week.
As if to prove his own point, Bolton were living – and dying – in both boxes. The Canaries were taking the chances when they presented themselves and, by and large, denying their hosts the chance to punish them in their own penalty area.
The Barnett penalty was borderline; it was more rash than calculated. But given the final result, few will be bothered to argue with Howard Webb’s decision.
It’s points what count and Norwich had all three. And that’s all that ever matters.