City defender Zak Whitbread summed up the feelings of many this weekend as the Canaries returned empty-handed from The Britannia Stadium, Stoke.
“It was a scrappy game,” said the big Texan simply, as Matthew Etherington’s 72nd minute strike condemned Norwich to their third straight defeat which left Paul Lambert’s men slipping back into tenth as the Potters muscled their way back up to eighth.
It wasn’t one for either the football purist or the scrap-book, in fairness.
David Fox’s arrival might have sparked a little more passing and possession into Norwich’s game, but in the end they found themselves with little more than sweat and tears to show for their trip to the Potteries.
Like Swansea before them, the best-laid plans of mice and managers can swiftly get knocked for six once Stoke steam into battle. And this weekend was no exception as Lambert opted to give new-boy Jonny Howson a debut in a re-jigged midfield.
“I didn’t think they created that many chances – apart from the long throws and what not,” Whitbread told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards, as he and partner Elliott Ward endured a long and testing afternoon in the heart of that Canary defence.
City never quite managed to get themselves onto the front foot; to impose their own game on their forceful and direct hosts.
“We are desperately disappointed that we didn’t manage to have more impact on the game and come away with something,” added Whitbread.
“But this is a very tough place to come to – there’s not that many teams that are that direct – but we’ve just got to look to the Wigan game now and come away with a good three points.”
Victory over the Premiership strugglers this weekend would all-but confirm Norwich’s place in the top flight again next season – as well as ending something of a relatively sticky patch for Lambert’s men.
Relative being the operative word here – three defeats on the spin with one against the reigning Premier League champions is hardly cause for panic; it is more unusual than anything. The City does not do back-to-back defeats. Nor does his team.
“I think a lot of teams come here and struggle to get a foothold in the game,” said Whitbread. “A lot of managers will be scratching their heads and wondering why they can’t come away with something.
“We tried to play – but it’s not as easy as that. They do put their stamp on the game; they’re at home with the crowd; they stop, start for the set-plays and it is tough.
“About the hour-mark we did start to open it up a bit more and create a bit more, but we’ve got to move on now. There’s another game next week now.”
Moving swiftly on was – probably – the best policy. Moving swiftly on is not something Stoke due ahead of corners or throw-ins; they have a game plan and, in fairness, it works for them.
“When it’s their set-plays, they set the pace,” said Whitbread, as the Potters successfully knock teams like Swansea and Norwich out of their passing rhythm.
“It’s easy for them to dictate play and then it’s difficult for the other team to make their mark on it. But they’ve been doing that for a good few years now and they have had good success with it.”
The fact that the decisive throw was not a Stoke ball at all – Mark Wilson having the final touch – hardly helped the mood. Horribly bitty, basically unsatisfactory and, generally, all-too forgettable summed up this weekend’s events.
“From where I was standing it was our throw and I think the whole ground has seen the referee put his hand out for our throw,” said the City centre-half, as the assistant over-ruled that decision and set Etherington’s winner in motion.
With Ryan Bennett handed a place on the bench and the likes of Andrew Crofts, Adam Drury and Leon Barnett unable to force their way into the final 16, Lambert has strength in depth these days. It is just conjuring up the winning formula in places like The Britannia.
“You never know whether you’re going to be in the team from one week to the next – and that’s how it should be,” said Whitbread. “It’s not down to each of us to work hard to try and get into the team – and work hard to try and stay in the team.”
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