Norwich City’s first Premier League clean-sheet away from home in eight years kept Chris Hughton’s men moving in the right direction this afternoon – away from the dread drop zone.
West Brom (a) in 2004 was the last time that the Canaries returned from their travels with a clean sheet in tow and today’s 0-0 draw with an equally stubborn Reading side had the added advantage of keeping the Royals locked in the bottom three.
Boss Brian McDermott would have had Norwich (h) as one of his banker ‘six-pointers’; for Hughton to be winning his home games – first against Arsenal and then against Stoke – while picking up deserved points on the road – first at Villa and now at Reading – is a sure sign of solid progress being made.
Certainly against the clubs that City need to be picking up points against.
And with QPR nailed ever firmer to the floor of the table with today’s defeat at Stoke and Southampton failing to beat Swansea at home, the bottom three are starting to have a familiar look to them. Sunderland’s defeat at Everton also keeps them heading south for the winter.
Besides, it is always a sign of a side in a confident mood when knocks and niggles prove exactly that as Hughton was able to call on the services of both Michael Turner and Javier Garrido for this afternoon’s trip down the M4.
With Steven Whittaker and Robert Snodgrass continuing down the right, so it was an unchanged line-up from the side that started against the Potters last weekend that went in hunt of further Premier League progress against a still-struggling Royals side.
And in the game’s opening exchanges, Norwich continued to look the side on a roll – enjoying the greater possession for the first ten as Whittaker almost released Wes Hoolahan and both Anthony Pilkington and Snodgrass probed for an opening on either flank.
Chances, however, remained few and far between at either end as Norwich – in particular – continued to look a strong and well-drilled unit; rarely finding themselves too far out of position as the home side worked hard for an opening. Any opening.
At the other end, Snodgrass flighted a 28th minute header just away and over off a cute Hoolahan cross. But that was pretty much it. That and an earlier Garath McCleary effort that England’s John Ruddy saw wide.
Cagey, tight and pretty disciplined was the story of the opening half hour. As it was, in the event, for the opening half.
On that 45 minutes, the MotD cutting crew wouldn’t have too much of note to work with.
After the re-start, the pattern of the match continued. Hoolahan snapped an awkward shot five yards wide of the Royals upright after Holt and Pilkington wrestled an opening up; Garrido needed to slam the door shut on Jason Roberts as he looked to wriggle free moments later.
Jobi McAnuff would hit the left by-line only for Bradley Johnson to position himself perfectly to clear the eventual cut-back.
City were certainly putting another big shift in defensively. The question remained – for both sides – whether someone, somewhere, could deliver the one, quality final ball to turn the contest one way or the other.
Substitute Jimmy Kebe added fresh legs after the hour-mark; he would force Alexander Tettey into a hasty challenge on the edge of the City box only for Nicky Shorey to slam the ball against a stubborn Canary wall. Kebe would then drop a deep cross onto the top of the Norwich bar as the Royals sniffed that all-important opener.
It almost fell to Holt seconds later only for Garrido’s deep cross to flick off a covering Kaspars Gorkss and put the City skipper off his stride. Norwich were, by now, matching Reading chance for chance as the game, finally, started to open up.
Pilkington was the principal supply line; first Snodgrass and then Holt would just get underneath decent deliveries as they gained a rare sight of the Reading goal.
In the end, however, they found no way through. Nor, in the end, did Reading.
It was, in fairness, the right result; two committed teams; well-organised, well-drilled; without the final ‘killer’ ball to open up either back four.
But as the dust settled on Norwich’s third clean sheet in four Premier League outings so there was no doubt as to who would be the happier manager this evening. The one to be found heading home, east down the M4 and on up the A11.