City chief Chris Hughton paid tribute to his players for digging ‘very deep’ to unearth three more, huge home points against Stoke City this weekend.
The Potters under Tony Pulis’ charge have become the most uncompromising of Premier League foes – a fact recognised by their recent record of late. For while wins might have been in short supply, Stoke remain notoriously hard to beat.
To prise three points out of Pulis’ hands requires everyone to put in an epic shift work-wise. That Norwich did this weekend – led, in no short measure, by the new central midfield pairing of Alexander Tettey and goal-scorer Bradley Johnson who, for example, wholly over-shadowed Potters playmaker Charlie Adam.
In short, they out-fought their visitors and it was upon that platform that Norwich drove on and up that Premier League table to sit 14th at the end of the day’s hugely-encouraging proceedings.
With that Capital One Cup quarter-final date to look forward to – and all with a rather more modest pricing structure – so Hughton’s reign is beginning to blossom and in the likes of Tettey, Sebastien Bassong, Mark Bunn and Steven Whittaker his summer recruitment policy is also delivering rich fruit.
“These are an excellent side,” said Hughton, as he quietly celebrated a second, successive home win following that crucial 1-0 home win over Arsenal.
“They play a style that is very difficult to play against,” he added. “But they have good footballers. They’re not all about a direct style when you look at players like [Charlie] Adam and the players that they have on the bench.
“So it was a real, well-fought victory for us.”
What will have frustrated Potters boss Pulis even more – over and above various decisions from referee Andre Marriner – was the fact that Norwich’s winner came from a simple set-play. Traditionally one of the cornerstones of Stoke’s strengths, it was a case of the biter being bit in Norfolk this weekend as Johnson’s twisting 44th minute back header made the most of Robert Snodgrass’ inviting delivery.
Couple that with another clean-sheet – no mean feat given that Hughton was forced into two, enforced defensive reshuffles over the course of the 90 minutes – and it was a very good day at the office. Even if the game was never really that pleasing on the eye.
“We had to make two defensive substitutions and it’s a difficult game to bring defenders into and to get into the swing of things – so that [a clean sheet] was what pleased me most,” Hughton told the BBC, after losing first Michael Turner and then Javier Garrido to injury. It left Whittaker to switch from right-back to left and Bassong to go through three defensive partners in the shape of Turner, Ryan Bennett and then Leon Barnett.
But all came through with reputations enhanced; confidences lifted again. Much like their manager who, week by week, is starting to win the faithful round. Inevitably, progress will continue to deliver the odd bump in the road.
But far better to be in Norwich’s position than that of a Reading, a QPR or a Southampton who found themselves five points adrift of 17th-placed Aston Villa after yesterday’s round of games. That is a significant gap to be looking to bridge at this early stage of the season.
Sunderland have work to do goals-wise, while Paul Lambert’s Villa are about to run into both the Manchester clubs as the Canaries look to add to Reading’s worries next weekend.
If they can dig any sort of result out there, it will be deemed two, big points dropped by the struggling Royals and should keep City bubbling along nicely before they prepare to play host to Manchester United a week later.
“It’s been a difficult few weeks,” said Hughton, with memories of Fulham (a) and Liverpool (h) slipping into the distance.
“We’ve already been through a couple of difficult periods in the season so it feels like we’re a lot further into the season than we are. But we know where we are as a football club and how tough it is going to be for us this season – how demanding.
“And any three points we can pick up are very, very valuable.”