An 87th minute header from centre-half Ryan Bennett finally gave Norwich the goal that their possession had deserved today as the Canaries claimed a huge 1-0 win over visitors Hull City.
The England Under-21 defender rose highest to meet an inviting Robert Snodgrass corner and take the Norfolk side to a dizzying 12th in the table – five points clear of the drop zone as Cardiff, Fulham and West Ham United all lost.
Given the context of today’s contest – in particular the gauntlet that appeared to lay at Chris Hughton’s feet in terms of staying out of the bottom three – Bennett’s late goal could prove priceless. Be it personally for the under-fire manager or, indeed, the club itself as the Canaries claw their way away from the immediate danger zone.
Well, for at least this week. 38 points and safety still looks miles away. As it does for a dozen clubs this evening.
The critics would argue that the classic centre-half’s header from a deep corner merely papered over the cracks left by a woefully under-performing strike department. Others would suggest it is a results business; and Norwich got the result their overall performance deserved.
‘In the Premier League, you’re only as ever as good as your strikers…’ was a quote ascribed to Tigers chief Steve Bruce before today’s crucial clash.
Had Bennett not delivered on cue, that assertion was in danger of being chiseled onto Hughton’s managerial gravestone as Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper and Luciano Becchio – along with the absent Johan Elmander – once again failed to pull their manager out of the fans’ firing line.
Today’s winner was just City’s 18th goal in their 22 Premier League games this season – a stat that will still keep manager, board and fans awake at night as tougher contests loom before now and the end of the campaign.
Give Hull their due. They defended manfully for those first 87 minutes – only for their concentration and resolve to slip within sight of the finishing line.
Earlier Hughton had wasted little time in throwing 30-year-old new-boy Jonas Gutierrez into the fray and with Snodgrass back patrolling his usual beat after the mid-week experiment of a more central role so the City chief was placing his faith in older heads as opposed to younger legs for such a crucial contest.
He was also placing huge faith in his two, big summer strike buys – that one from Hooper and van Wolfswinkel would deliver when it really mattered.
It was always going to be an afternoon on the knife-edge – for club, supporters and hard-pressed manager alike. And within the first two minutes, it could all have gone horribly wrong as Liam Rosenoir broke down the left and an angled cross found new signing Nikica Jelavic alone ten yards out.
His first-time effort kissed the outside of John Ruddy’s right upright when he had the whole width of the goal to aim at. A huge let-off for all concerned.
Rosenoir would have a harder chance moments later; all right-foot on the left side of the Canary box, his volley flew wide of the target as the home side were rocked back on their heels.
City’s best early chance came in the 11th minute as Bradley Johnson’s decent deep cross was headed back across the six-yard box by the ever-threatening Snodgrass. There waited an unmarked van Wolfswinkel. But as he fell back and away from the ball so the Dutchman’s ill-hit shot bobbled a couple of yards wide. Which merely summed up his season in a Norwich shirt.
With little immediate sign of a breakthrough as the game drifted on through the half-hour mark, so an already tense atmosphere began to close in on proceedings. So much rode on the outcome of this, one contest.
City were slowly racking up the pressure; it needed a firm, defensive header from Rosenoir to whip the ball off the forehead of van Wolfswinkel as Snodgrass once again whipped a dangerous ball into the Hull box.
But Norwich needed to make such pressure count; to give Snodgrass some reward for his creative efforts. He was destroying Maynor Figueroa – on for the injured James Chester.
In the end, the Scottish international wearied of trying to deliver the assist – a well-hit, swerving effort from some 25-yards distant forced Tigers keeper Allan McGregor into a hurried punch to safety.
All square at the interval, the one consolation for the home faithful would have been news of events at Upton Park where Newcastle went in 2-1 up as Sam Allardyce, likewise, fought for his job at the foot of the table.
The start of the second period found Norwich again on top with the Snodgrass-Martin combination down the right enjoying moments of genuine menace – only for that big threat in the middle to be missing.
The question was what Hughton would do to shake things up and find that way through to a goal. To substitute either van Wolfswinkel or Hooper would merely underline the fact that neither had delivered on the big occasion – albeit in fairness to Hooper, he had barely had a chance. And, in the past, he has delivered.
Van Wolfswinkel had had his – and once again it had gone missing.
The first change in the 68th minute avoided such conclusions as Anthony Pilkington made his first appearance since picking up a tear in his hamstring – on for the tiring Gutierrez.
One false move now and it could all go horribly wrong.
Van Wolfswinkel did depart early – giving another struggling striker, Becchio, some ten minutes to make a difference.
In the end, however, it was a central defender who made that all-important difference. And deep into injury time Bennett even came close to adding a second as Tom Huddlestone picked up a second yellow and got first shout at the soap.
City had done what was required on the day. And won.
But their failings were all too evident. And on other days, could prove all too costly.
The question now is whether ort not the transfer window will be utilised to ease Norwich’s striker plight if the manager – on the back of this result – is not for going.