Robert Snodgrass’ 45th minute leveller today ensured that hard-pressed City boss Chris Hughton would have to slip another fixture into his January diary as the Canaries third-round FA Cup tie with Premier League rivals Fulham ended 1-1.
One-time Town youngster Darren Bent had earlier returned to haunt his Norfolk neighbours with the game’s opening goal as the Canaries kept their fingers crossed that a Ricky van Wolfswinkel or a Johan Elmander could break their respective long-standing goal droughts and avoid the need for a replay.
Alas, that was not to be.
Huff and puff as hard as they might, there was no Scott Parker ‘moment’ – for either side – to split the two teams. The fact that Fulham keeper David Stockdale enjoyed a decent day at the office didn’t help.
As promised – and all-but expected these days – Hughton made a clutch of changes for the Fulham re-match with David Fox returning to the base of the City midfield, fresh returned from his loan spell at Barnsley. The other starter of note was young Josh Murphy whose season continues to blossom with this his first, professional start for the Norfolk club. To complete a memorable day for the Murphy family, twin brother Jacob was on the bench.
It would, at least, give the home faithful something to cheer should both home-grown talents grace the pitch at the same time.
The emphasis on youth continued among the substitutes where Jacob found fellow FA Youth Cup winner Reece Hall-Johnson taking his place alongside the Hoopers and the Becchios – as well as Under-21 defender Adel Gafaiti.
Of rather more relevance to City’s Premier League fortunes this spring, there was also a first start since October for van Wolfswinkel, who joined Elmander up front. The club’s record summer signing was in sore need of a goal or two; perhaps today was the day on which his fortunes turned.
For the visitors, the FA Cup was clearly of equally little appeal – if the team-sheet was any guide.
No Parker and no Steve Sidwell in the heart of that midfield; the central midfield duo that had underpinned the Cottagers 2-1 win at Carrow Road on Boxing Day.
There were, however, two familiar faces drafted in – ex-Town star Bent and USA World Cup star Clint Dempsey, who has returned to the banks of the Thames on a short loan spell. He, at least, would be expected to put a shift in. Whether Bent would follow suit would be the $64 million question for the travelling Fulham fans.
In fairness to Master Murphy, he made his intentions plain by being the first to figure – driving a third minute effort high and wide as the 18-year-old continued to enjoy life on the big stage.
Both Elmander and Steven Whittaker would push on and probe; at the other end, both Bent and Pajtim Kasami would be given a sniff before the half-hour mark. As with the league encounter, this one would likely be nip and tuck to the death – the more cynical might suggest it would be a case of who wanted it the least when it came to missing out on the fourth round ticket. Sheffield United’s early advantage at Villa Park would be further proof of that particular pudding – that a crop of Premier League managers had far more to worry about than picking a path to Wembley.
A point United would hammer home before the end of another difficult afternoon for one Paul Lambert.
Back in Norfolk, it was Bent who threw the spanner into Hughton’s cup works five minutes before the interval and, inevitably, enjoyed his moment against those north of the border – and, indeed, that of stand-in keeper Mark Bunn. Chris David delivered the assist; Bent the right-foot finish from the middle of the box. He has, in fairness, always had the ability.
It was not, however, the end of the first-half entertainment; Snodgrass cutting Bent’s delight short with that rarest of beasts – a 45th minute header with help from Master Murphy. A goal apiece at the break. As in the league encounter, the next goal might well win it.
In an ideal world, that honour would fall to van Wolfswinkel; that the FA Cup could be the springboard to forgetting about his toe-hit start to his Canary career. Twice the Dutchman would find opportunity knocking as City pressed after the interval; twice that goal eluded him.
As it would the equally luckless Elmander; he gave way for Nathan Redmond as the chances of the Murphy twins running riot slimmed. One thing that would suit neither manager would be a draw and a replay. Someone, somewhere would need to follow Parker’s lead and break the deadlock before the end of the afternoon.
With 12 minutes left one J Murphy replaced the other as the Canaries continued to look for ways and means to avoid a mid-week trip to West London. Jacob followed his brother’s lead by having the confidence of youth to ping an effort wide six minutes from time; would the contest still have a final twist in the tale?
No, in short. In front of goal and when it really, really mattered, it proved to be the same old story.