Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
Oh what fun it is to see
Norwich win away!
It certainly is, especially in the Premier League. And, just as West Brom’s win at our place in September hinted at reasons for anxiety, I believe City’s triumph at The Hawthorns gave clues about how and why Paul Lambert’s team will survive and thrive in the toughest division in the world.
First though, we should all allow ourselves time to wallow in the sheer joy of having seen back-to-back away wins.
It is 18 years since Norwich managed that. But back then, in the 1993-94 season, the world, the game and the Premier League were very different.
So when Norwich won at Blackburn and then Leeds in August 1993, then at Everton and Chelsea in September and at Tottenham and Southampton at the turn of the year, the results were good but unremarkable.
After all, that was the season when Mike Walker’s men went on a barnstorming UEFA Cup adventure, so a few stirring away wins in the Premier League were not earth-shattering.
I remember the win at Southampton in January particularly clearly. The young Dennis family had a cold but happy day out. Chris Sutton scored just before half-time, and I drove us home expecting more of the same in the months and years to come.
Walker walked a few days later but still none of us imagined in our most paranoid nightmares that Norwich would be relegated the following season and become envious, excluded spectators as the Premier League was transformed.
City’s relegation, two years after finishing third in the Premier League, was a footballing disaster and a financial cataclysm.
As well as the new, huge TV deal for Premier League clubs, there were fresh riches available in continental competition. The European Cup became the Champions League in 1993 and increased commercialism and hugely enhanced TV contracts produced unprecedented wealth.
The Premier League, by then substantially richer than the Football League, began to polarise within itself into the haves and have-less.
Then, a year before Norwich got back up for a season, Roman Abramovich flew in and the Premier League became a three-tier division – the have-less, the haves and the have-yachts.
The changed football landscape meant that clubs like Norwich could never again compete at the very top of the English game on equal terms.
But, there are no other clubs exactly like Norwich, with fans who stay so loyal and so passionate in the third tier. Certainly there are no managers quite like Paul Lambert.
Yet when West Brom mugged us at Carrow Road in September, I left the ground shaking my head, worried by what I had seen.
In the previous home game, the draw against Stoke, Norwich had looked vulnerable on the flanks, so for the visit of West Brom, Lambert went for 4-4-2 to give our midfield width.
But Roy Hodgson targeted our centre-backs, Leon Barnett and Ritchie de Laet. Instead of attacking down the wings, West Brom repeatedly played balls into the channels alongside our centre-backs or over the top of them, forcing them to turn and chase back.
One such ball led to the game’s only goal. De Laet spun around, but got insufficient power on an attempted back-header. Peter Odemwingie gratefully toed the ball to the side of Declan Rudd, deputising in goal for the suspended John Ruddy.
I thought that, in lots of positions, Albion had more quality than us that day and showed the benefit of all those yo-yo seasons since we were promoted together in 2004.
Forgive me. I should have kept the faith.
In the months between losing to Albion and playing them again, City persuaded the country that they can stay up. The victory at The Hawthorns convinced me that they will.
The context of the win at Albion was the unbeaten away sequence it continued.
The previous couple of trips to Everton had been bleakly unpleasant and some of City’s worst moments have been at Wolves (remember the unforgiveable lack of discipline when, in the dog days of Peter Grant’s reign, we had two men sent off in a 2-0 submission?).
So to draw at both Everton and Wolves this season – and be disappointed at not holding on for wins – provided a measure of Lambert’s team.
Grant’s final match in charge, an abject surrender at QPR, also helped give perspective to the unstinted bliss of seeing Neil Warnock do his pieces as City won there this time.
And then, at Albion, Lambert reverted to the diamond formation – and I think he did so to protect our centre-backs because of what happened at our place. The diamond gives us a narrow midfield, which leaves the flanks exposed but screens the centre-backs. And, of course, the diamond deploys a holding player directly in front of the centre-backs.
This time the role went, at the start, to Bradley Johnson, who was my man-of-the match.
There were other candidates.
Wesley Hoolahan started messily, giving away possession too often and too easily and missing tackles, but, by the finish, he was a devastatingly destructive first line of defence and a wonderfully incisive creative force.
And the many things I expected or hoped of Norwich players in the Premier League did not include the notion of Grant Holt as a fleet-footed, tricky left-winger!
But as Holty galloped towards us away fans, and Wes and Andrew Crofts surged up in support, we could see Steve Morrison biding his time to arrive at the correct moment. And we knew – we just knew – that Holt would deliver the sort of centre he would like to receive.
Cue unrestrained, mad exultation in the away end.
It was a smash-and-grab win, because City did have to withstand a lot of Albion pressure. But saves and goal-line clearances are part of the game – part of this City team’s game, any way.
And because of the dismal dross of the years we have suffered and should never forget, back-to-back away wins in the Premier League must be relished.
There will be more, I am sure.
Nigel Worthington told me that he thinks 38 points will be sufficient to stay up. That means 10 more points from 17 games.
I think we’ll reach that total before March ends.
Lambert set up his team to counter what Albion did at Carrow Road. So his team won’t do a Blackpool.
Ian Holloway’s side were relegated because other teams worked out how to play them. Lambert has worked out how to play other teams.