Grant Holt’s third goal in as many games this evening finally set Chris Hughton’s managerial reign alight with a superb, 1-0 home win over Arsenal.
If the performance was good, the result was even better for the new Canary chief as his first, Premier League win in charge of the Norfolk side propelled the club out of the bottom three and into 15th place in the table.
Two places above Aston Villa after their 1-0 away defeat at Fulham this afternoon. The significance of that result – and the way it will over-shadow next weekend’s reunion with ex-City boss Paul Lambert – will not be lost on anyone.
Above all, however, it is the huge, confidence boost that today result will give all concerned that matters more.
The monkey of that first win is off the manager’s back; Norwich are no longer in the bottom three; they are out of the drop zone; up and running – and flying into next weekend’s trip to the Midlands.
Not a bad night’s work, all things considered.
It was also a real vindication for Hughton’s team-thinking and shape; he out-smarted and out-muscled a lame Gunners side – and got the Faithful right back believing again after a difficult autumn thus far.
Anthony Pilkington took less than two minutes to remind everyone of his attacking intent; popping an early shot wide of the Gunners’ goal after being teed up by Wes Hoolahan. The Irishman – watched for once by Republic of Ireland boss Giovanni Trappatoni – delivered big style.
For the Dubliner’s pairing with Holt was clearly an intent on Hughton’s behalf to get back to basics team-wise – Hoolahan off Holt down the middle; Elliott Bennett to one side; Pilkington to the other.
Alexander Tettey and Bradley Johnson held the fort in central midfield at the expense of Jonny Howson. He joined Robert Snodgrass on the bench as the Canary chief shuffled his pack again in that ever-more urgent search for his first win at the helm.
There was, certainly, a decent discipline shape-wise to City in the game’s opening exchanges – something that would last through to the 95th minute mark. Two, resolute banks of four denied the Gunners too much space to exploit – and, equally, avoided the early set-back goal-wise of the Liverpool variety.
In fact they went one better – and repeated their feats against Chelsea by taking the lead in the 19th minute.
Tettey unlocked the door with a dipping, 22-yard effort that Gunners’ keeper Vito Mannone could only spill back across his own goalmouth to where Holt lurked. Eight yards out – and a yarder smarter in thought and deed to Per Mertesacker – the City skipper made it three in three with all the confidence and aplomb of old.
Or rather of a player who had scored goals against first Liverpool and then Chelsea in the run-up to today’s events. He will be licking his lips at the prospect of four from four at Villa Park.
How Michael Turner needed a similar shot of confidence in the arm. The ex-Sunderland defender had a glorious opportunity to double Norwich’s advantage in the 35th minute when he rose highest to meet a perfect, Pilkington far post corner – only for the ball to arrow five yards wide of the target. So much would have been forgiven if that ball had flown in.
As it was, Norwich were still staring 15th place in the face courtesy of Holt’s latest strike. Two places above Villa when the half-time whistle finally blew. It had been all Hughton could have hoped for in terms of the first 45 minutes. The next 45 could yet set the tone for the rest of the season.
The minutes must have ticked by oh-so slowly for Hughton as the Canaries kept both discipline and shape – against a definitely flat and less-than-inspired Gunners attack.
Norwich might not have threatened unduly at the other end, but they were ahead in terms of both goals and incision as the hour-mark passed and the belief grew among the home faithful that something special could be afoot.
It summed up Arsenal’s afternoon that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – fresh from his opening England goal against San Marino – came and went in the space of nine, second-half minutes as Sebastien Bassong’s forthright interception managed to put the youngster’s back out of joint.
It left Arsenal with 15 minutes to find inspiration from somewhere; 15 minutes for Norwich to deliver one of the biggest home victories of recent years. It was 28 years since they last beat Arsenal at home.
Ten minutes from the end and Holt had more than half a chance to seal it as he broke free and charged down on goal through the inside right channel. In the end, he appeared to be caught in at least three minds as Hoolahan screamed for the ball to chipped wide.
The ball dropped comfortably into Mannone’s hands and the nerves continued to fray.
A minute from the end and Bassong it was who rode to Norwich’s rescue with a magnificent block to thwart Gervinho. Even then five minutes of added-on time to endure before a famous victory was their’s.
And, boy, did all concerned enjoy it. With every good reason.
Now for Mr Lambert…