There has always been plenty to admire about Paul Lambert’s management. Hard not to with back-to-back promotions under your belt and – till this season – the fact that the Canaries hadn’t lost back-to-back league games on his watch.
But just as the Canaries are on a steep learning curve with regards to just what it takes to survive in the top flight of English football, so City fans continue to learn more and more about their manager.
And on Saturday – as the Norfolk club racked up their first away win in 17 years of trying to work out this Premier League thing – so the Canary faithful found themselves with a manager willing to make the biggest of calls. And getting them right, what’s more.
Swapping around his midfield and resting skipper Grant Holt in favour of what all-too often becomes a lone attacking threat in the shape of the tireless Steve Morison isn’t the decision that stood out.
Drop Wes Hoolahan into those awkward little spaces between two banks of four – or else find him wanting and keeping the ball somewhere deep in your own half – continues to bemuse Premiership teams. And for as long as Norwich have possession of the ball, so the opposition can’t hurt them.
Particularly away from home; where possession remains nine-tenths of the law.
Nor was to swiftly re-instate Anthony Pilkington to his starting line up after he missed the Baggies clash with a back strain. He continues to look – and talk – the part. His first goal for his new employers will have lifted his confidence to a new level. The lad looks fit – in both senses – for this stage.
No, the decision that stood out by a country mile was that to switch unemployed right-back Russell Martin into the heart of his defence and drop Ritchie de Laet to the bench.
That’s a big call.
As everyone knows, Norwich’s centre-half department hasn’t been injury-free; the manager has three sat in the treatment room. Nor have they been wholly error-free, either. One slip in concentration and, bang, they’re away…
And as much as people might quibble with this decision and that, the bottom line is that don’t put yourself in a position where the official has to make a decision; don’t leave yourself open to mis-interpretation in the first place.
But throwing Martin into that space left Lambert wide open to criticism if it hadn’t worked. If Kevin Davies had trampled all over him in the game’s 20 minutes then people would start to wonder out loud where City’s centre-half policy was right now.
But that didn’t happen. In part, clearly, that’s down to Martin’s own ability. But equally, that’s down to Lambert not only recognising that fact, but then having the faith and the bravery to enact that belief in the full spotlight of Premiership football.
Three defeats on the spin – to Chelsea, West Brom and then Bolton – would have had the doom-sayers out. The fact that both Swansea and QPR opted to pick this weekend to win convincingly would have merely reinforced the national impression that Norwich were the weak link of the three, promoted teams.
Locally – given that no national newspaper can now be a*sed to trek up the A11 to attend a pre-match Press conference – and that faith remains undimmed.
There is the attitude and the ability to compete at this level – and in Lambert City possess a manager that, like his players, is stepping up to the plate and rising to the challenge.
There is another point worth mentioning re Martin. And this one is always difficult to judge from a distance.
It’s how much that Canary back-line talk to each other – and what’s being said. I’ve heard it said before that certain players can make ‘noise’, but to little practical effect; others need to be talked through a game. From first minute to last.
That, to my mind, was always one of Craig Fleming’s great strengths – he had the nous and the confidence to talk his team-mates through a game. He just needed someone big, quick and strapping alongside him to do as they were told.
Whether a combo of Naughton, Barnett, de Laet and Tierney is all-too quiet is a possibility; whether a sound head and a good talker can help cut of the basic lapses in concentration that Norwich can ill-afford is another – at least until the likes of an Elliott Ward returns to take command at the back.
I don’t know; just a thought.
But the point is more about Lambert than Russell. That in making that call, the Norwich chief had a ‘cojones’ moment – and reaped his due rewards. Fortunedoes indeed favour the brave.