City hero Wes Hoolahan celebrated a new Canary deal in the best possible manner this afternoon – by bagging the winning goal to send his beloved Norfolk side soaring into seventh spot in the Premier League table.
Anthony Pilkington’s first-half strike started to erase memories of Tuesday night’s 4-1 home defeat in the Capital One Cup that ended City’s recent ten-game unbeaten run – only for Wigan substitute Shaun Maloney to level five minutes after the interval.
At which point a four-game, winning home sequence in the league stretching back to the beginning of October looked to be under threat against a game, if limited, Latics side.
But four minutes after the hour-mark, it became clear just why City boss Chris Hughton was happy to hand the 30-year-old Hoolahan a deal to keep him at Carrow Road until at least 2015 when he bagged all three points with that rarest of Wesley Hoolahan moments – a decent header off a Pilkington cross, as the little Irishman squeezed his way in between two defenders to pop the ball into roof of the net.
At the other end Sebastien Bassong would need to deliver a fabulous, last-ditch tackle to keep City’s Premier League pot boiling as Arouna Kone wriggled free on the penalty spot, but two minutes later it was game over.
Norwich were up to seventh in the table on the back of that magnificent, ten-game unbeaten sequence and looking far more like their old selves than the slightly tired and all-too open outfit that let Paul Lambert’s Villa rule the cup roost.
The difference may well have come in the shape of the four returning faces that Hughton was able to call upon for this afternoon’s return to the multi-million pound bread and butter of the English Premier League.
Hoolahan was obviously one; Alexander Tettey another. At the back, Michael Turner and Steven Whittaker completed a sense that Norwich were about to resume normal service after the Lambert-inspired ‘blip’.
Pilkington has, likewise, slipped into a decent goal-scoring groove of late and delivered again in the 15th minute.
Teed up by the returning Hoolahan, the Canary winger drove forcefully through that inside-left channel before unleashing a fearsome drive that Ali Al Habsi could only help on and up into the top left-right corner of his goal and – for the next half an hour or so – put City seventh in the table.
Pilkington would return the favour for the Dubliner just after the hour-mark to restore Norwich’s slender one-goal advantage.
For in between time, Wigan had levelled courtesy of one of those ‘inspired’ substitution moments by Roberto Martinez at the interval.
On came Shaun Maloney for Jordi Gomez and having found his range with a 48th minute, direct free-kick, he then went one better and found the top corner from some 22-yards distant with a right good lash to give the visiting Latics a few moments moment of hope.
For much of the afternoon City’s biggest challenge had proved to be finding a way beyond Al Habsi in the Wigan goal – the best of a clutch of good saves coming in the 77th minute as he flung out a left-hand to thump a Pilkington drive wide of the far upright. The one to deny Robert Snodgrass in the 37th minute was of a similar high order.
A second for Pilkington and a third for Norwich would have spared everyone a few late dramas; Bassong having hearts in mouth with a nasty, right-foot shank of a clearance deep into the second-half that could have gone anywhere. As it was, it went off for a corner. He would save his best moment for last as Kone once again threatened.
Whistle blown and the only slight cloud on the horizon would come in the form of skipper Grant Holt gingerly leaving the field late in the game with what appeared to be a slight hamstring pull. Given how thick and fast the games come over the festive period, his absence could be a blow.
But that could wait until a proper assessment in the morning; tonight the Canary faithful were happy to look up and dream of what the spring may yet bring on the back of events of late.
It was certainly a dream afternoon for Hoolahan; his footballing life just gets better and better since first arriving in Norfolk in the summer of 2008. Today’s new deal will take him through until least the summer of 2015; his place in Canary hearts long ago assured.
“The last couple of years have been great coming up from League One all the way up to the Premier league and doing so well last year,” he said, speaking to the club’s official website before kick-off.
“We’re doing even better this season and hopefully we can keep that run going…