City boss Chris Hughton tonight paid special tribute to Canary skipper Grant Holt for another huge, selfless shift up top as Norwich extended their unbeaten run of Premier League games to eight with that 2-1 win over Sunderland.
First-half strikes from Sebastien Bassong and Anthony Pilkington proved just enough in the end to earn Norwich their fourth straight home success in the league and lift the Norfolk side into 12th – one place above Fulham and on the same number of points as Liverpool.
More importantly it put ever more clear blue water between them and the relegation zone where Reading and Southampton, in particular, gun to drag the Villas, the Wigans and the Sunderlands into the mire. Newcastle and Fulham look out of sorts; QPR are just a mess.
Norwich, by contrast, look in fine fettle – with a shape, a belief and a confidence that, if maintained, will see them safely across that 40-point safety line in double-quick time.
But as sweet as City’s latest victory was, it again arrived without a goal from the skipper. Holt has remained stuck on three goals since bagging the winner against Arsenal on October 20th.
Eight games without a strike is arguably the leanest spell in front of goal that the 31-year-old has had to endure since his arrival at Carrow Road in the summer of 2009. Once again today nothing quite fell right for him as goal No74 of his extraordinary Canary career proves so elusive.
A late Elliott Bennett cross would lift over; a squeezed through-ball from the skipper’s regular side-kick Wes Hoolahan just ran away from him as Norwich went in search of the cushion of a third goal.
In the event, it was sheer, dogged defending that saw City home; that and some woeful finishing from the visitors as they enjoyed by far the better of the chances after Craig Gardner’s 44th minute reply.
Defending, said Hughton, that started from the front; from the skipper leading by example and defending deep as and when the occasion demanded.
“I thought we defended from the front – from Holty up front,” said the City boss, with Norwich’s preferred 4-4-1-1 formation not always playing to the big man’s strengths. He has to put a big shift in to plough that lone furrow. And this was his third in a week. Few in that team are scared of hard work.
“It’s been a little bit of a difficult one for him,” Hughton admitted. “For someone that is used to scoring goals he’s probably had to sacrifice a little of his game, but I thought he led the team really well today.”
It was Pilkington’s sure finish that would, in the end, prove the difference between the two teams and condemn Martin O’Neill’s Black Cats to another week all-too near the drop zone.
As for where the turnaround lay, how the hapless Canaries of mid-August have blossomed into the form team of the Premier League, Hughton pointed to one, over-riding factor – confidence.
The confidence that comes with getting the basics right; of where two, simple banks of four can get you – if all concerned do the basics work-wise. For the craft of a Johnny Howson came the extra graft of an Alexander Tettey. And with leaders of the ilk of Holt up front and Bassong at the heart of that defence, so Norwich look an altogether different proposition to the soft-centred, all-too loose outfit that the likes of Fulham, Liverpool and Chelsea dismantled with such alarming ease.
“We knew we had two bad ones,” he told the BBC. “The one here against Liverpool and then the one against Chelsea where the form wasn’t so bad.
“But when that happens you know that you have to do something and the team knew it. They knew that we had to perhaps get back to basics and make ourselves harder to beat. And that proved to be a good foundation; from that we have made ourselves harder to beat but we’ve also added some goals to that.
“And at the moment we’re in a very good run.”