You know it’s been a good night when, with the minutes ticking away, a substitution is met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Neil Adams’ double-change on 73 minutes was one of those.
For his part, Cameron Jerome’s double salvo and tireless running was more than deserving of the Carrow Road treatment, but it was the faithful’s appreciation of Gary O’Neil’s contribution that really struck a chord. We had just witnessed a masterclass in keeping the ball.
Jerome and Nathan Redmond may have picked up the gongs from the sponsors and Sky TV respectively – and both were excellent – but for me the ex-QPR man was a worthy Man of the Match. Dare I say O’Neil’s demeanour and quality on the ball were even a tiny bit Crooke-esque.
While we are yet to witness a range of passing that is up there with the great man, last night his ability to find, with comfort and ease, a yellow shirt was just what has been missing.
I wasn’t at Hillsborough last Saturday, but understood his second half performance to be notable for its quality of passing and delivery of set pieces. And we witnessed more of the same last night.
And while the rationale behind Adams’ 73rd minute changes was completely understandable – Jerome because of a gashed knee and O’Neil because he was walking a red card tightrope – the impact was such that City found themselves hanging on.
In a flash the control City had enjoyed in centre of the pitch was gone, so too a ‘target’ up front to hold the ball up and link with the midfield. It became a struggle and one woefully short header back to John Ruddy later and the nerves were audibly jangling.
Ultimately it took a couple of timely challenges from either centre-back to see City through to victory, but it would be unfair to allow a nervous finale to detract from much of what had gone before. Overall it was decent – more than decent at times – with the one significant ingredient being that early goal.
And what a difference it made. The link up between an advanced Jonny Howson and Jerome was excellent and the finish by the latter unerring; the dreaded record of having not scored in ten consecutive first-halves finally consigned to the bin.
In truth that goal was the difference between last night and the five home games that had preceded it. Yes, the passing was a little better, and yes, there was a little more purpose when going forward, but generally the one thing that set it apart was that odd curiosity known as an early goal.
For all the angst and frustration City have just been missing goals. Simple as.
In many cases a plethora of goals will paper over a whole wall full of cracks. In City’s case it was the reverse. A dearth had laid bare a few.
Hopefully now, with Adams having discovered a formula that has promise, the one win in eight will prove to have been a blip rather than a sign of things to come.
Certainly there was a balance to the side last night that has not always been there.
With Nathan Redmond’s trickery and pace down one flank and Kyle Lafferty’s energy, power (and occasional flailing arm) down the other, City offered a dual threat throughout and their occasional switch ensured the Bolton defence was never comfortable.
(Interestingly Bolton’s attacking intent was almost solely focussed on exploiting the right side of City’s defence; even every kick from keeper Andy Lonergan being aimed at the area occupied by Steven Whittaker).
Whether City played a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1, as was the subject of some post-match debate, matters little. The key is flexibility. When defending it requires Redmond and Lafferty to assist their full-backs; when going forward their job is to to join in with Howson and Jerome. Last night they did both to good effect.
Another notable improvement, which has coincided with the inclusion of O’Neil, is the quality of the set pieces.
Gone last night were the moans and groans when a corner fails to clear the first man. Instead, almost without exception, the delivery was arcing and true and gave the Jeromes and Turners and Laffertys a chance.
It was therefore fitting that the second goal came from one such corner; the pace on the ball giving Jerome a perfect opportunity to find the net with such aplomb.
So… after a few OK home games, last night was a good one. No pulled up trees or sweeping changes. Just a couple of clinical finishes, some calm, measured passing and loads of hard graft.
No cause for wild celebration, but a win’s a win. And how we needed it.