The sight of John Ruddy and Sebastien Bassong fist bumping as yet another Ipswich attack was thwarted was, for me, highlight of an afternoon that was full of them.
The goals speak for themselves – Bradders’ was another absolute scorcher, Grabbs’ was a fluke – but that fleeting moment when, in full view of the River End, the two colossi of City’s defence touched fists confirmed in an instant that everything was going to okay.
It also confirmed that McCarthy’s hoofers could have been playing until midnight and still wouldn’t have breached City’s superbly disciplined and well-drilled back-four.
On the odd occasion he was called upon the Big Man was magnificent but invariably it was City’s two centre-backs – who withstood the aerial bombardment superbly – who were there to quell any threat offered by the visitors.
The rise and rise of a rejuvenated Bassong has been there for all to see and those of us who were sceptical of his return to the fold have been proven well and truly wrong. He has been simply excellent at the heart of the defence and has rediscovered the form of 2012/13 that led him to lay hands on the Barry Butler trophy.
Alongside him (and I’m preparing another plate of humble pie as you read this) Russell Martin has now started to look every inch an international central defender. I have doubted for some time whether he possesses the necessary aerial dominance expected of Championship centre-backs, and have also questioned in the past whether he spots danger quickly enough, but for him to have emerged unscathed from two ultra-physical bombardments in the space of five days speaks volumes.
City’s back-four now appear more vocal and more organised – both emanating from the centre of that defence. And both full-backs have benefited as a result.
Martin Olsson now looks a very different character to the disinterested, niggly individual who desperately wanted to take himself and his toys to South Wales in January. Although never dipping below 100 per cent commitment, his body language often told the story of one who wanted out, but no more. If goal celebrations are the barometer of one’s belief in the cause then the Swede has bought into the Alex Neil way hook, line and sinker.
Steven Whittaker’s re-emergence from the Brentford horror show has been well documented and defensively he is slowly turning into a ‘steady Eddie’; his forays into opposition territory now disciplined and well-timed. In short he is another who has benefited from the the unequivocal messages coming across from the manager and yesterday’s solid performance was another example.
For all the talk of our plethora of attacking options, it is that solidity at the back that has been at the heart of the Neil revolution. Footballing logic tells us that behind every good side is a solid, reliable and well organised defence; the best way of achieving it invariably by finding your best combination of defenders and sticking with them.
And that’s precisely what’s happened.
An unchanged back-four for seven consecutive games – starting with that 0-0 draw away at Birmingham – was the Neil way of trying to solve the defensive conundrum and with five clean sheets rattled off in fairly quick succession it suggests that, as ever, he has called it right.
What the new gaffer has done particularly well, and did so again yesterday, is to strike perfectly that difficult balance between defence and attack. No longer are City hamstrung going forward by the need to stay solid at the back. Now the structure, with Alex Tettey (or A N Other when dodgy knees or suspensions prevail) sitting directly in front of Bassong and Martin, is such that the remainder can attack with freedom and expression.
Rarely, if ever, will both full-backs bomb on at the same time but one or t’other will join in when the time is right. That infamous late winner for Forest off the back of a City corner now seems a long time ago.
But what of our Suffolk Brethren?
Well, unlike some, I didn’t *completely* disagree with Mick McCarthy’s assertion that there wasn’t too much between the sides. I didn’t particularly like his tone, demeanour (especially when articulating his displeasure at Wesley) or the way he wreaked of sour grapes, but in terms of the stats the Blues did match City.
Where it differed was in terms of sophistication and effectiveness.
The term ‘hoofball’ has long been used to describe those who go back to front as quickly as possible and has had many forms over the years. From the ‘power football’ of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang through to ‘Huth-ball’ as perfected by Tony Pulis at Stoke, the styles have varied, but rarely can I recall witnessing such an undiluted form of the art.
McCarthy’s finest, in the absence of David McGoldrick and Teddy Bishop, were blatant in their attempts to get the ball high and far at the earliest possible opportunity, with absolutely no pretensions whatsoever in working a triangle before delivering it long.
First chance… bang! Proper crash, bang, wallop football.
But, in fairness, to a degree it worked. If the name of the game is getting the ball in the opposition’s box they succeeded. If the name of the game is making the game an ugly battle they did a job. And if its raison d’être is to bombard your opponents’ centre-backs with a constant stream of high balls they did so effectively.
We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. With both sides’ exponents of the high pressing game time on the ball was always going to be at a premium, and so it proved. Thankfully (fingers in your ears Mick) quality did tell in the end and in the second-half City’s propensity for keeping the ball on the green stuff was sufficient to see off McCarthy’s plucky but limited warriors.
No ‘Chambo fist pumps’. No more gaps to be minded.
So, where from here? Six wins on the bounce with Wigan to play on Wednesday is the stuff of dreams – and certainly was in the days and weeks pre-Alex – but expect there still to be some unexpected twists and turns. Promotions are rarely earned minus a setback or two, often when least expected, and besides… we’re Norwich City.
But, regardless of what may lie ahead, let’s enjoy the moment. They don’t come much sweeter than yesterday, particularly given the ‘banter’ that has been fired northward in our direction over the last four months.
City deserved the win, and nothing Mr Grumpy says can change that.
“On the Ball City…”