A double dismissal for Newcastle United’s Loïc Remy and City’s Bradley Johnson provided a rare moment of entertainment for the long-suffering City faithful tonight as the Canaries ground out a 0-0 draw with their visitors.
Grind being the operative word with Gary Hooper’s first-half effort proving to be Norwich’s lone strike of any note on target – until the 90th minute when Tim Krul denied Robert Snodgrass’ diving header at his near post as City almost sneaked a late winner in the Ryan Bennett mould.
Hooper’s exit in the game’s dying moments for the more defensive minded Alex Tettey will have done little to endear the hard-pressed Chris Hughton to growing sections of the Canary support.
For while a point against a side of Newcastle’s ilk – who would clip the woodwork three times in the course of the evening – is hardly to be sniffed at and still left City a good six points clear of the danger zone, it is the entertainment value that the punters are coming to question.
Are they getting their money’s worth?
For too many teams in the wrong half of the Premier League, it is a grind. For players and supporters alike. This becomes the nature of the beast.
Hughton’s cause was not helped, however, by another anonymous night for his record strike buy Ricky van Wolfswinkel. The Dutchman’s joyless season is coming to mirror that of his employer.
Gone were the days of two, teenage wingers strutting their youthful stuff; for in came Anthony Pilkington for an all-too rare start to complement Snodgrass away on the opposing flank with van Wolfswinkel and Hooper slung somewhere vaguely in-between.
Read whatever into it you want, but there was no place for Wes Hoolahan in Hughton’s thinking this evening. Not even on the bench. That will merely fuel the exit rumours. That he is Villa-bound.
There is a certain irony to the fact that Norwich tonight find themselves stuck in mid-table on the same points as both Paul Lambert’s Villa and Swansea City – both of whom are regularly cited in the case against the current manager. Be it terms of forceful personalities or footballing philosophies.
The big absentee for Newcastle, of course, was Yohan Cabaye whose £19m switch to PSG might have knocked the Magpies cout of their creative stride ahead of this evening’s clash. Or, at least, that’s what the home faithful could fondly hope.
It proved to be something of an untidy opening spell – not helped by the squally conditions.
Remy fired wide early on. Thereafter, chances were all-too few and far between – at either end.
The punters wanted something to sink their teeth into and get behind. Not for the first time this season, the fare wasn’t thrill-a-minute. Cagey and constrained appeared to be the early order of the day as City looked to build on that late win over Hull City in their last home game.
As it was, it was the visitors who started to turn up the heat – twice clipping the post before John Ruddy had to fling himself sharply to his right to palm away a deflected shot from Hatem Ben Arfa.
There was no doubt as to who were the slicker side; United’s smarter movement being matched by the angle of their passing; forward with menace.
Hooper did manage to whip an inviting cross onto the edge of the six-yard box on the half-hour mark only for his strike partner to be some five-yards distant as the chance was comfortably cleared. The two have yet to click together. All-too often there is all-too much distance between them.
City simply weren’t posing much of a threat. Pilkington, in fairness, looked like a player making his way back to match fitness. The timing and the touch would elude him.
As it did Ben Arfa three minutes from the interval when he spooned the clearest chance of the game thus far over Ruddy’s bar after Ameobi Jnr had first made the far by-line and then pulled a wonderfully inviting ball back.
It did, at least, spark a response as Hooper drilled a low, stinging effort goalward from some 22-yards distant which Krul could only palm out hastily.
It wasn’t enough to stem a round chorus of boos at the break. Not wholly undeserved; City were pretty sparkless and largely bereft of ideas. Not an ideal position to be in if Hoolahan was, indeed, about to exit stage left.
Van Wolfswinkel’s foul on the edge of his own box presented Newcastle with their next chance on the hour mark; Remy again finding the woodwork in his way off a dipping 20-yard free-kick as the Canaries continued to play second fiddle to their sharper visitors.
With 65 minutes gone, Hooper’s 43rd minute effort remained Norwich’s lone shot on target.
Given the whole tenor of the argument re Hughton’s managerial philosophy, it was not a statistic likely to do him any favours.
Van Wolfswinkel’s night finished 20 minutes early as Johan Elamnder arrived in search of his first goal of the season. At least Nathan Redmond’s appearance in the place of a tiring Pilkington promised pace and directness – something City had sorely lacked thus far.
The game did deliver some entertainment in the 80th minute when Remy and Johnson went head-to-head – literally. And all right under the nose of referee Chris Foy. Who let the dust settle before issuing both with a red card.
Alexander Tettey’s arrival for Hooper irked. With Newcastle rattled by Remy’s red, some might have felt now was not the time to withdraw your top scorer. It looked like another case of settling for what you had too early.
On such decisions are managers judged. Particularly those under such scrutiny as the luckless Hughton.