Paul Lambert’s Canaries tonight drove into the top half of the Premiership table courtesy of an ultimately, nervy 2-1 home win over a generally lacklustre Sunderland side.
Generally. An 86th minute strike out of nothing from Keiran Richardson made for a slightly tense final few minutes. Only deepened by the dispiriting sight of substitute James Vaughan disappearing down the tunnel, head in shirt, hobbling badly off his left knee.
His whole look and body language did not bode well. And left the Canaries with ten men to their name for the five added minutes of extra-time.
In the end, however, first goals of the season for first Leon Barnett and then Steve Morison rightly rewarded the home side for their greater energy and enterprise and confirmed the belief that there is more than enough in the Carrow Road locker to survive the Premiership course.
Back-to-back wins and ninth-place in tonight’s Premier League table might cut little ice in the corridors of Old Trafford where Norwich’s next test await, but for the merely mortals in the top flight few will take the Norfolk challenge lightly after disposing of first Bolton Wanderers and now Sunderland.
The downside was the Vaughan injury. He looked for all the world like a young man who Mother Nature had once again kicked firmly in the teeth.
“His knees locked at the minute which is a sign that something’s wrong,” Lambert revealed afterwards. If the morning brings bad news it will be a wretched blow for a player who first succumbed to knee trouble whilst on England Under-21 duty six years ago.
That blow apart, Lambert’s delight was evident; it was a big, big result on the back of that first away win at the Reebok.
“Winning our first home game is a big step for us,” said Lambert. “And I’m as proud as anything of them. They’re young – and they seem to be bonding really well.”
The fact that Morison was off the mark was another bonus. “It’s a hard shift up there,” said the City chief. “But I’m delighted with the way that he’s been playing and I thought his goal was brilliant.”
The first surprise of the night was the fact that Lambert named an unchanged starting line-up; the second was the fact that they weren’t ahead in the game’s opening ten minutes.
Morison was the first to show as an attacking threat, drilling a low shot to Simon Mignolet’s left which the Belgian keeper saved with relative ease. The better chance fell to skipper Wes Hoolahan two minutes later as Morison parted the Sunderland seas and with Mignolet wholly stranded in no man’s land, the Dubliner lifted a first-time lob way over an empty net.
David Fox would drill a peach of a 40-yard crossfield ball into the path of Anthony Pilkington; his driving run and low cross again had Mignolet scrambling across his six-yard box as Hoolahan sniffed a tap-in.
It was all bright and convincing stuff from the hosts, but they needed a goal to show for it all. Five minutes later and City’s early bluster was blowing itself and Sunderland would have been forgiven for thinking: ‘Job done..’
Right up until the half-hour mark when Norwich continued to make their presence felt in the top flight.
Once again it was the movement and touch of Fox that proved instrumental in Sunderland’s downfall as he ghosted across the face of the Black Cats’ box and dropped the perfect return ball into the feet of Elliott Bennett.
His whipped cross through the Sunderland six-yard box found Barnett all alone and he had all the time and space he ever needed to sweep the ball home. City had made their greater share of the possession count; their noses were rightly in front.
The Canaries looked every more the real, Premiership deal three minutes after the restart when Morison broke his Canary duck – and with it what was left of Sunderland’s hopes.
Russell Martin’s surging forward run from centre-half deep into the inside right-channel set the Black Cats back on their heels. Marc Tierney arrived perfectly on cue to loft a perfect hanging cross back across the face of the Sunderland goal where Morison rose above a horribly static Wes Brown to thump his header home.
The goal had movement, had delivery and had a finish. All three were too good for a sloppy Sunderland outfit whose interest in proceedings was fast waning.
They almost gained a helping hand from Bradley Johnson with a horror touch deep in his own box that demanded a decent save off John Ruddy to push Nicklas Bendtner’s effort away for a corner.
The £8 million substitute that is Connor Wickham had the best chance to haul Sunderland back into proceedings but he could only softly guide an eight-yard header straight into Ruddy’s arms as the visitors for once found space behind City’s back four.
Richardson’s consolation came out of nothing; an angled, 20-yard drive, low into the far corner that everyone just watched scurry home.
In the end, it mattered little. City held their nerve and held onto the points which, at the end of the day, is all that ever matters in this brute of a division.