I had a rare night out on Saturday. It was a friend’s birthday party and was one of those reunion type occasions where you catch up with people you haven’t seen for years.
It was good, the only downside being it was the wrong side of the border. Ten miles the wrong side in fact, meaning there were more than a few followers of ‘that lot’ around ready to engage with supporters of their debt-free Premier League neighbours.
True to form, a few beers into the evening there was one (there’s always one) who wanted to engage me in the ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ type banter. I tried my best to resist (it’s all a little too easy at the moment) but felt compelled to chip in after hearing how Town had been “brilliant” that afternoon and had “out-passed the best passing side in the Championship” (that’s Brighton apparently, in case you didn’t know).
After a brief discussion about the Ipswich ‘crowd’, which has been diminishing at a rate of around 1000 fans a season over the last decade, I felt compelled to mention the 9-2 (I hadn’t seen this chap for a while). Typically this was dismissed as ‘one-off’, with their 5-0 win that occurred fifteen years ago of seemingly more relevance to the here and now.
And… did you know they won the FA Cup in 1978? Me neither.
The final straw was the mockery of “Stoke against Naarwich being Sky’s BIG game of the day”. Upon reminding him of the TV on/off button and of there being no mandatory obligation to watch the game, the best he could offer was “I wanna watch it cos you’re gonna get thrashed”.
Thankfully for the Yellow Army present, and those watching Sky’s BIG game on TV, City were able to finally overcome the Britannia Stadium jinx and produce a performance that brought about arguably the most valuable three points of Chris Hughton’s Norwich career.
While it may not have been one for neutral – particularly the Suffolk Brethren – those of a City persuasion will care not one jot that the second half in particular failed to live up to Pele’s vision of ‘the beautiful game’.
In fact, despite the second half being not for the purist, the football played in the opening forty-five was as enterprising as we’ve seen all season, with City enjoying a decent chunk of quality possession courtesy of some accurate and high tempo passing. While some may not wish to hear it, much of it came perilously close to being ‘pleasing on the eye’, and there haven’t been too many occasions this season when I’ve been able to say that.
After enduring the trickiest of weeks – the Villa defeat still a source of pain for most – Hughton should be applauded for getting all of the big calls spot on. The obvious temptation to throw Gary Hooper into the fray was resisted; RvW instead being handed a lone striker role minus the support of Johan Elmander.
With Elmander’s ‘no 10’ role being replaced by the more conventional centre-mid qualities of Alex Tettey, Hughton set out with the clear intention of not being outnumbered in the centre of the pitch. And it worked.
The extra man in midfield not only gave Jonny Howson licence to get forward – and score as it happened – but ensured that the dual battling qualities of Tettey and Leroy Fer gave the Stoke midfield not one second of comfort in possession.
Seldom, certainly of late, can I recall City smothering an opposing midfield like they did yesterday; the ball being won back at will for long periods of that first half. Also, with Tettey combining his usual exhaustive workrate with a simplicity of passing that so far this season has eluded Bradley Johnson, the ball was knocked around with consummate ease – the centre-mid triumvirate working just how Hughton must have dreamt it on Saturday night.
And just as important as the quality of passing was its tempo. None of the laboured, tepid build ups that have become something of a recent trait; instead the ball was zipped around which, among other things, gave both wide men opportunity to test out their opposing full-backs one on one.
At left-back, Martin Olsson – in for Javier Garrido – was an attacking full-back personified, his swashbuckling being timed to perfection especially in the spells when City were dominating possession. Whether the Swede would have been selected had Nathan Redmond been fit to play remains to be seen – Pilkington’s additional experience affording his left-back partner greater protection – but in the circumstances few could again question that Hughton called it correctly.
It would be remiss of course not to mention the penalty incident – Fer admitting afterwards that he did indeed have a tiny bit of Kenwyne Jones’ shirt – but good fortune has been in fairly short supply of late and we were due some. In fairness to Mark Hughes, one who has never been renowned for his magnanimity, he was quick to admit that said incident shouldn’t detract from the fact Norwich deserved to win the game.
And he was right; the only slight disappointments being that the first-half pressure led to just the one goal and the second half failed to live up to the promise of the first. But, while the midfield took the honours before half-time it was the turn of the back-four and John Ruddy to take them after the break – a clean sheet minus one Sebastien Bassong certainly not to be sneezed at.
So… a rare but well deserved away day success for Hughton and his men in a week that has at the very least busted the ‘he’s lost the dressing room’ myth. With things getting even tougher from here on in, the three points couldn’t have been more welcome, but the level of performance will have also afforded a further injection of confidence that looked to be ebbing away after the Tottenham defeat.
Let’s hope those in deep, darkest Suffolk enjoyed our Super Sunday as much as we did…