Gary Hooper’s season continued to show real signs of life this afternoon as the former Bhoys favourite gave Canary chief Chris Hughton the chance to sleep slightly easier in his bed with a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.
It wasn’t the most fluent of Norwich performances – certainly after the break as the nerves started to jangle given the six points at stake – but, as ever, it was the result that counted.
And this was another big one; right up there with the 3-1 win over West Ham in which Hooper had starred with his crucial penalty conversion.
This afternoon it was his coolly-taken finish from some ten yards out that came to separate the two teams; it might have been more had Johan Elmander’s earlier strike cannoned down off the woodwork and onto the other side of the goal-line.
Though Palace would reply with a similar near miss after the interval.
The value of that lone strike became ever more evident as the results from elsewhere started to filter through – heavy defeats for both Fulham and Stoke ensuring that the managerial spotlight would fall elsewhere for the next week. Martin Jol would be the bookies’ new favourite for the axe.
Equally with away trips to West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool next on the agenda, Hughton needed the extra cushion that came with today’s win.
It might not have been pretty, but it did a job. And, for now, that will do. Just don’t be surprised if 89 minutes worth of ‘action’ ends up on the cutting room floor come Match Of The Day.
In fairness to the under-pressure manager, he set his best attacking foot forward this afternoon with two strikers slung up top in the shape of Hooper and Elmander, with Wes Hoolahan recalled to sit in that little hole behind the two and weave his usual magic. There was a welcome, positive intent to his team shape.
For there was also a start for teenage winger Nathan Redmond; further evidence that Hughton knew this game had to deliver all three points as the Canaries sat all-too uncomfortably a point above the drop zone before kick-off.
So he set out his stall accordingly – albeit if his hand was forced by the recent injuries to both Anthony Pilkington and Robert Snodgrass.
With the sick bay queue also including Ricky van Wolfswinkel, there was the rare sight of Luciano Becchio filling one of the substitutes’ berths. He would even replace Elmander in the game’s later stages.
At the back, the City chief also recalled Sebastien Bassong after the skipper’s recent absence.
All of which came within a few inches of delivering its due reward within the first ten minutes as Elmander saw an instinctive effort cannon down off the underside of the Palace bar and bounce out again – the Canaries agonisingly close to taking an early advantage and calming the inevitable ‘Must win!’ game nerves.
It would also have got Elmander off the mark Premier League-wise for his new employers. Something all concerned would sorely welcome.
Redmond, too, was evident early on; cutting in off the right and firing at Julian Speroni’s left-upright as the youngster continued to revel at this level.
He was centre stage as Norwich did, finally, get their act together in front of goal – as was Hoolahan.
Redmond drove down the right; Elmander fed Hoolahan away on the left and the Dubliner did what he does best – ignoring the obvious scoring opportunity himself to feed a waiting Hooper who, therefore, had the time to first control and then calmly prod home the opener into the bottom corner for the 25-year-old’s second top flight strike of a slow-starting season since his £6 million switch south.
By rights Norwich’s lead should have been short-lived as a combination of John Ruddy, the crossbar and Martin Olsson somehow denied Barry Bannan.
It was, in fairness, a rare foray forward as Redmond and Hoolahan, in particular, kept Palace occupied in their own half – food for more thought for those that believe Hughton would be so better served by players of such an offensive inclination.
Hooper clearly benefitted from bagging his second goal in as many home games – his inside flick to feed Elmander five minutes after the restart was straight out of the top drawer. Alas, Redmond’s final 25-yard effort was something long lost beneath same said set of drawers.
A second goal would just calm things down; make sure there was no nasty stings in the tale as the Canaries looked to drag themselves further north table-wise.
Palace – driven on by new boss Tony Pulis – were going nowhere quietly as the Canaries found themselves struggling to find their first-half fluency. Damien Delaney would blaze high as the Eagles started to take flight.
Becchio’s late arrival found Norwich heading more and more for the corner flag – desperate to cling on to a second big home win in as many Carrow Road outings.
History has all-too often repeated itself when it comes to late heart-breakers; two, priceless points ripped out of the home teams hands at the very death – two points that can be all the difference between staying up and going down; between managers coming and going.
In the event, however, Hughton clung on as Cameron Jerome saw an 88th minute effort saved by Ruddy and the four minutes of added on time found Russell Martin leading the charge for that distant corner flag.
Ruddy would come and drop before substitute Steven Whittaker gave away a late free-kick that he then headed clear by way of amends.
It was all a little desperate; City could still do with the kind of strike rate that allows everyone to breathe that little easier. But one goal did it. And the one goal that mattered was Norwich’s.