I’ll be neither the first nor last to liken tomorrow’s clash to that famous April afternoon in 2011 when Simeon Jackson (along with Chris Goreham and Neil Adams) carved himself a niche in Norwich City folklore.
For those present and those listening to events unfold on the radio it will forever remain one of the great Carrow Road moments.
The raw, unbridled passion in the stands… Wes Hoolahan’s jig… John Ruddy’s 100 metres in 9.6 seconds… the bulging veins of those in the Snake Pit… that bloke falling off the ‘Aviva’ hoarding… and (later for those of us who were there) the best 43 seconds of commentary in Canary history.
The build-up to that game, and others in that famous run-in, were crammed full of Y’Army calls for a hero. On that day Jacko answered the call.
But will there be one tomorrow?
The circumstances are different of course. Back then there were only three games of the season to go and City were already in the top two. Derby, with Nigel Clough at the helm, were a shadow of today’s iteration and arrived at Carrow Road in 19th place. The Canaries were desperate for the win, the Rams – with safety assured and Robbie Savage in the final throes of his playing career – were already liberally applying the sun tan lotion.
What unfolded was, of course, the stuff of legend but City began the day expecting to win.
Tomorrow – while Alex Neil, by his very nature, will be expecting victory – sees two evenly matched teams going head-to-head who are separated only by the depth of the metaphorical Rizla paper. It will likely be a bum-squeaker and probably not for the faint-hearted but it will also be good, honest Championship fare – the very antithesis of Wesdnesday evening’s drama-fest between Chelsea and PSG.
As ever it’s nigh impossible to predict the exact XI that will start for the Canaries – such is Neil’s penchant for shuffling his pack, especially in the attacking third – but one suspects a fresh Alex Tettey will return to the fold having served his strategically planned suspension.
With Bradley Johnson a subsequent shoo-in for the left-sided marauder role and Jonny Howson a near certainty given his brace and overall performance at The Den, it looks to be two from five for the remaining attacking/midfield places – assuming Cameron Jerome is handed the out-and-out striking berth.
Wes and the dancing feet have been fruitful of late and it would be no surprise to see him start against the Rams but will likely be at the expense of either Nathan Redmond or Gary Hooper, probably the former. In the absence of the injured Lewis Grabban, Hooper’s eye for goal is likely to count in his favour.
All of which leaves Graham Dorrans and a fit-again Gary O’Neil also in the frame. Both have a happy knack of passing to those in a yellow shirt and fall in the ‘will do a good job’ category. Whether either possesses the necessary energy and verve required for Neil’s preferred high-pressing game for the full 90 will be the manager’s call.
At the time of writing it’s unclear whether Seb Bassong’s knee injury will permit him a start against Steve McLaren’s Rams but in his absence Carlos Cuellar has played himself into the position of able first deputy.
With Ryan Bennett also impressing in the Under-21s there are now other central defensive options at Neil’s disposal, although a recall for Michael Turner is no longer one of them. His wish for game time has been answered in the form of an emergency loan at Fulham that will keep him at Craven Cottage until the end of the season.
In the spirit of straw-clutching I do wonder if a still-injured Bassong would have scuppered such a deal but equally one does wonder, now that it’s been completed, whether Neil’s desire for mobility from his centre-backs means the end of Turner’s Norwich career.
In terms of who the Canaries will be facing tomorrow, it is looking increasingly likely that the Derby attack will contain neither Darren Bent or Chris Martin – and that can be no bad thing. Both, for very different reasons, fall in the group of those who fate deems must score against us and it will be a boost if neither appears.
On paper, the biggest threats appear to be in the form of the diminutive figure of Jamie Ward – who in the absence of Martin and Bent has been playing in an advanced role – and Thomas Ince, a February loan signing from Hull City. The resurgence of Steven Whittaker will be given it’s ultimate test if Ince lines up on the Derby left.
Another February loan signing, the highly-rated Jesse Lingard from Manchester United, has proved a useful acquisition for McLaren but has recently been used mainly as an impact sub.
So, it’s going to be tight, it’s going to be tense and, as ever, it will be cool heads and big hearts that win the day. Let’s just hope both will be the preserve of those in yellow shirts… and if anyone fancies giving Simeon Jackson a run for his money in the hero stakes then feel free.
And Chris… lubricate those vocal chords. Here we go again.