Newcastle United’s make-shift defence was laid bare in thrilling fashion by the Canaries this afternoon as returning skipper Grant Holt and the in-form Steve Morison powered City to a memorable 4-2 success.
Holt led the charge with two, second-half headers as United sorely missed the presence of the injured Steve Taylor at the heart of their previously water-tight rearguard. Fabricio Coloccini was also AWOL with thigh trouble as, defensively, Newcastle looked a shadow of their former top four selves.
Morison headed the third home from a wicked Andrew Crofts cross for his fifth goal in six Premiership outings as Alan Pardew’s pairing of James Perch and Danny Simpson simply lacked the physical presence to deny the formidable City forward pair.
Newcastle also lacked 11 players for the game’s final half-hour after Dan Gosling’s frustrations boiled over in the shape of a nasty, studs-first lunge on Russell Martin that ended his afternoon early.
Not that that bothered the home faithful; this was another big, big home win – built on two, fabulously old-fashioned English centre-forwards taking their opposing centre-halves apart.
“Grant [Holt] is every bit as important as he was two years ago when I came to the club,” said Lambert afterwards, reaping such rich reward from his decision to restore the 30-year-old to his starting plans.
The result took City to ninth; more importantly, it kept them three wins clear of the bottom three.
“In think him [Holt] and Morison were excellent today,” he added. “But I’m delighted with everybody’s contribution. And they’re a good side. You can see why they have got to where they have in the league, but I thought we deserved to win today.”
Nor did he have too much sympathy for Newcastle’s injury plight. “Having three centre-halves out at one time is hard – I’ve had to put Russell Martin in there, but he’s been tremendous for us.”
As ever, Lambert didn’t shy away from those big team calls; four more changes heralded this afternoon’s encounter.
Whether they were, in part, prompted by those well-trailed injury woes or whether the Canary chief simply fancied offering Morison more by way of a helping hand on home turf was one for the post-match Press conference. “No,” was the manager’s answer. ‘As if…’ was the Press’.
Either way, back came Holt complete with his skipper’s armband with Wes Hoolahan returning to pull strings in midfield from the tip of that famed diamond. In fairness, due reward to both for their second-half efforts against Queen’s Park Rangers a fortnight ago.
With diamonds once again Lambert’s best friend, David Fox was also restored to his deep-lying playmaker’s role, with Zak Whitbread – fit again after his lengthy hamstring lay-off – given the chance to prove his worth against the twin threat of Demba Ba and Shola Ameobi. Leon Barnett was the one to make way; not Martin.
Bradley Johnson, likewise, had to settle for a place on the bench; as did Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington.
It took less than 30 seconds for Holt to set the tone and win his first header against Simpson; the latter would have his hands full all afternoon as City made the very most of Taylor’s now season-long absence. Simpson might be many things, but strapping he ain’t.
Bit by bit, Norwich racked up the pressure; Holt having the clearest opportunity in the 17th minute as wrong-sided James Perch in the inside-right only for Simpson to block his drive.
Newcastle also had to survive a huge handball shout against Davide Santon as Kyle Naughton’s cross whipped towards the penalty spot.
Arm out-stretched, the ball all-but rolled down the full-back’s arm – and all 30-yards in front of the assistant stood in front of the travelling Geordie faithful.
Hard done by against Chelsea, officialdom more than made amends this week as Newcastle’s luck held.
Not for long. Justice might have been done when Tim Krul was adjudged to have carried Marc Tierney’s cross over the line for a 38th minute corner. Dubious; no matter to the home crowd as Andrew Surman’s place-kick found Crofts stooping to head goalward.
A combination of Krul and Simpson briefly kept the ball out, but only managed to divert the ball onto the knees of Hoolahan who, from two-feet out, saw the ball pop up and in.
It was all Norwich deserved for sustained bouts of first-half pressure against a defence that, with the best will in the world, looked there for the taking.
That should have been that at the break, only for Norwich’s own defensive frailty to haunt them once more. With the fourth official having already held up the board for one minute’s injury-time, Yohan Cabaye chipped an innocuous little ball into the inside-left channel where Ba had spun into space.
As all concerned stood and stared, the United striker brought the ball down with one touch, tucked it under a bemused John Ruddy with the next. One moment, one lapse and all Norwich’s first-half efforts unravelled before them as Ba bagged No10 for the season.
City almost had an equally rude awakening to the start of the second period, only for Ba to skim his far post chance off the top of Norwich’s cross-bar as the early momentum shifted the visitors’ way.
With referee Martin Atkinson firing everyone into life, Norwich restored their lead just before the hour-mark through skipper Holt. Fox and Hoolahan worked the short corner; the former whipped a cross into the danger zone where Holt rose first ahead of Whitbread. Krul may have saved the first effort; the rebound merely sat up perfectly for the Canary favourite to head home off the underside of the bar for the 50th league goal of his City career.
Not to be outshone, four minutes later and Crofts’ right wing cross found Morison thumping a glorious, 15-yard header into Krul’s bottom corner for the third. United were being hammered in the heart of their defence.
Worse was to follow for Newcastle as Gosling left his foot up and showing as he clattered into Martin in the 66th minute. A straight red followed; he had a yellow to his name already. Newcastle would play the last 30 minutes with ten-men, their season in danger of going south for the winter.
Norwich being Norwich didn’t do anything easily. Whitbread managed to get himself horribly, horribly caught in possession by Ameobi. Bang, bang, 3-2 as Ba raced clear, collected Ameobi’s through-ball and drilled Newcastle briefly back into proceedings.
Until, that is, Holt plucked further low-hanging fruit from Newcastle’s defensive tree. Substitute Johnson provided the delivery; Holt helping himself to the softest of eight-yard headers. Job done.