City skipper Grant Holt proved to be both hero and potential villain at Carrow Road this afternoon as his 13th and 14th goals of the season all-but secured Norwich’s place in the Premier League again next season – only to then be sent off five minutes from time for a second yellow for a tackle from behind on Michael Kightly.
Whether it was worthy of an early exit will be for the pundits to ponder later via the TV replays, but either way it left the ten-man Canaries with a thoroughly awkward ten minutes to defend their 2-1 lead as Wolves threw everything forward in their own, desperate search for a Premier League lifeline.
But with John Ruddy, Zak Whitbread and Elliott Ward all stepping up to the plate as everything but the kitchen sink was heaved goalward, so the celebrations that greeted the final whistle were long and heart-felt.
For courtesy of this afternoon’s 2-1 success, the two teams are now 17 points apart with Norwich now just one-point shy of that magic 40-point mark in 11th. With eight games still to go, the Canaries can reach out and touch another year of top flight football as Wolves face up to the prospect of a trip to Portman Road next season.
‘Say ‘Hello!’ to Ipswich Town…’ sang the gleeful home faithful, who will happily live without derby day for another year as they start to establish themselves in the land of milk and honey.
“I’m never comfortable until its mathematically certain,” said City boss Paul Lambert afterwards, who opted to go with three at the back for today’s entertaining encounter.
The first real drop of spring sunshine certainly had everyone in bright and breezy mood at Carrow Road – all concerned knowing that three more points against a struggling Wolves would virtually guarantee the return of Manchester United, Chelsea and Co to Norfolk next season.
Anything less and on the back of their recent travails, it could all become just that little bit edgy. The fact that it won’t was down to another big chapter in the story of G Holt – and a really big and eager shift from all his team-mates.
“That was a massive win for us – and I am delighted for the team. As proud as anything of them,” added Lambert.
“And I thought we deserved to win it. Some of the football in the first-half was excellent. We passed the ball really well; we played a different system and I thought they adapted to it really well.”
As for Holt’s dismissal, Lambert wasn’t alone in missing the first booking – for dissent in the 63rd minute, apparently. Two bookings and a one-match ban will rule the 30-year-old out of Fulham away. For the record, Holt is now the second-highest scoring Englishman in the Premier League behind Wayne Rooney. He is now ninth in Norwich’s all-time scoring list.
“I think the first one is for when he’s won the free-kick, but then you’re always running the risk [of a second yellow] if you go to ground. But I think it’s harsh – I really do.”
Wolves, in fairness, started the brighter with Kevin Doyle’s second minute header forcing Ruddy into an all-too hurried save.
Backed by a vocal and boisterous home crowd, Norwich responded smartly enough however as a combination of Wes Hoolahan, Jonny Howson and Holt finally enabled Simeon Jackson to wriggle free and his near-post effort was, likewise, only despatched to safety at the second attempt.
Momentum achieved, Kightly had to head off his goal-line to deny Whitbread from a tenth minute corner as Norwich continued to push the ball about with welcome purpose.
All of which – for 84 seconds – counted for very little when Kightly found a forward gear and having got the restored Simon Lappin back-pedalling, crossed for Matt Jarvis to tuck a simple opener away into the bottom corner.
The lead, however, would prove distinctly short-lived as Holt stamped his presence on proceedings. Jackson’s flick-on found the Canary skipper breaking free just onside; thereafter, his finish was coolness personified as he flicked the ball over a flailing Wayne Hennessey before gently nodding his 13th goal of the season into an empty net.
No14 would arrive just before the interval and this time from the penalty spot as Eggert Jonsson was – rightly – adjudged to have handled the ball as Hoolahan drove a shot goalward with the visitors penned into their own penalty area.
Up stepped the skipper and, with the minimum of either fuss or doubt, smashed the 67th goal of his Canary career through the diving Hennessey.
Kyle Naughton’s arrival for Lappin at the interval almost yielded immediate dividends as he set Jackson free behind the Wolves defence – only for both ball and chance to scamper away from the Canadian.
Holt’s hat-trick was only denied by a magnificent clearing header from Sebastien Bassong; moments later and Howson was darting into the box and drilling narrowly over as the home eagerly pressed for the game’s deciding goal.
Which they would deserve as City’s performance took its cue from the weather – bright, engaging and with a real spring in their step. Albeit with a spot of high drama at the death.