Bradley Johnson’s season leapt up another gear this afternoon as his deft, 44th minute header proved enough to deliver another three, huge points into Chris Hughton’s arms courtesy of a 1-0 win over Stoke City.
It takes City’s recent, Premier League tally to seven points from the last available nine; unbeaten in four, this was just the kind of result that sends confidence soaring.
Because it proved that Norwich can win ugly as well as well; that not only can they mix and match it with the Arsenals of this world, but equally they can go out and out-muscle and out-ruffle the Stokes of this world.
It was a success borne out of sweat and tears; never the sweetest of football. But that will be of little concern to Hughton tonight. His managerial reign is on a real roll. The late autumn has been very good to him.
The only concern this evening would be of the injury variety as first Michael Turner and then Javier Garrido disappearing early. But all credit to Steven Whittaker who demonstrated his worth and versatility first on the right and then on the left as the Canary back four chopped and changed again.
With City enjoying the lion’s share of the possession in the game’s early exchanges, the best chance fell to Anthony Pilkington in the 25th minute off a smart pull-back by the ever-inventive Wes Hoolahan.
Some 12-yards out, the Canary winger has popped those in before; he had one touch, time and space enough to tee it all up. This time, however, and Potters keeper Asmir Begovic could comfortably save with an out-stretched leg. Chance, gone and begging sprang to mind.
Earlier and City chief Hughton had made two changes to the side that prised a worthy draw out of Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa last weekend – Robert Snodgrass replacing Elliott Bennett on the right as Whittaker continued to deputise for the still-injured Russell Martin.
The sweat and tears would come in the heart of the midfield where the ever-improving Alexander Tettey and Johnson swapped tackle for tackle with Charlie Adam, Dean Whitehead and Co; it got a little too much for the one-time Blackpool star as he found himself the first in the booking for, apparently, tumbling all-too theatrically to the floor off a Garrido challenge.
Whitehead and Andy Wilkinson would follow yellow card-wise before the interval. Before the end and Matthew Etherington’s toys were likewise exiting the pram.
Alas, such an untidy passage of play came to sum up the opening half as final balls sailed high, wide and less than handsome, while the visitors’ regular insistence that they do look to pass the ball to feet wasn’t exactly borne out by the evidence laid out before a sceptical Carrow Road audience. Bang, bang, bang went the ball.
The Potters were playing to type – and the game, as a spectacle, duly suffered as a result with the odds on Stoke disappearing home up the A50 with their seventh draw of the season shortening with every passing, scrappy minute.
Until the 44th. When Johnson delivered big-time for the Canary faithful. Snodgrass’ whipped free-kick from the Canary right arced invitingly along the edge of the Potters’ six-yard box where Johnson – free from the attentions of Adam – headed gleefully home via a rather balletic pirouette.
Stoke had got all they deserved from the level of their first-half performance. To be undone by the simplest of headers from a set-piece play would hardly have softened Tony Pulis’ mood. For Hughton, however, his Christmas’ continue to come early.
Stay this way till five o’clock and the Norfolk side would leap-frog over the visitors and find themselves 14th in the league and in the last eight of the Capital One Cup. A none-too-shabby return from the new man in charge.
Wigan’s shock win away at Spurs set a right cat among the mid-table pigeons, but with Paul Lambert scoring all three points against his old managerial mentor Martin O’Neill, so Norwich were, indeed, 14th by five o’clock, into double figures points-wise and heading north at a fair rate of knots.
The second-half didn’t start ideally. Jon Walters found himself with an early chance to level; Turner disappeared injured to be replaced by Ryan Bennett. Norwich would earn their win the hard way; a big, 45-minute shift beckoned – and to a man, they delivered.
Sweat and toil was the order of the day as Stoke heaved both bodies and ball forward in the search of an ill-deserved leveller.
Whittaker would certainly earn his corn on his Premier League debut; Garrido’s exit found the Scot switching across to left-back as Leon Barnett joined the fray. Stoke were turning up the heat; backs were to the wall.
Kenwyne Jones had hearts in mouths in the 77th minute when he opened up a yard of space some eight yards out only to screw his final shot a yard wide of John Ruddy’s right upright.
And that, pretty much, was as close as they came. Huff and puff as much as they might, City were not about to give in.
It was never pretty; it was never football the way Norwich play – but, boy, was that one big, beautiful, ugly win for players, manager and faithful alike.