In a week that has been brimming full of celebratory Irish folk it was somehow appropriate that Norfolk’s own favourite Irishman should end it with a virtuoso performance and celebratory jig of his own.
If St Patrick’s Day and a thrilling Six Nations win for the Irish were not enough, Wes Hoolahan earned himself a Guinness or two last night with one of the individual performances of the season.
For some, Wes’s lack of end product has been a source of frustration but of late his overall contribution and a decisive touch or two in the final third has added a vital cutting edge to City’s impressive attacking play. And yesterday he was sublime. The very same Wes that tantalised and teased Championship defenders back in 2010-11.
In post-match conversation with Chris Goreham, Alex Neil conceded that his plan had been to rest Wes in midweek and unleash him on Nottingham Forest yesterday but events in Huddersfield didn’t allow. Instead a point salvaging cameo at the John Smith’s Stadium was to prove just the aperitif to a full-on master-class yesterday.
Those who question the Irishman’s propensity to occasionally be peripheral if it needs blood and thunder instead of dancing feet are probably right. So too those who get frustrated at his habit of sometimes giving the ball away in vital areas but no-one can argue the fact that when he is ‘on it’ he is unstoppable.
Forest began the day as one of the league’s form teams, just as Wolves were upon their arrival at Carrow Road in mid-February, but both were swatted away like irritating flies – City again perfectly taking on the role of flat-track bullies.
Yet, as enjoyable as it was, I departed Carrow Road with one question on my mind: If City can despatch thoroughly decent sides so clinically and without fuss, what the hell are they doing fighting tooth and nail to cling on to the coat-tails of the top two?
A rhetorical question of course but with the squad’s extra quality becoming more apparent with every win, the need to get promotion automatically becomes ever more obvious.
Neil understandably insists the play-offs hold no fears for him, but they do for me. If you finish the season in the top two you get promoted because you deserve it but, to coin a phrase, the play-offs are a lottery. A perfect example, QPR’s undeserved play-off final win last season.
But enough of my random niggles. There was so much to drool over yesterday it seems a shame to let one or two little gems pass without comment.
The performances of the full-backs – both of whom have suffered spells of poor form this season – were notable for their excellence. With Forest playing with no natural width – especially when Michail Antonio was forced inside to deputise for the injured Dexter Blackstock – both had ample time and room to bomb on, and did so to good effect.
Martin Olsson and his dislocating shoulder remain a concern but when all limbs (and mind) are intact he’s a terrific asset to have down that left side.
Since the emergence of Bradley Johnson in his left-sided role the Swede too has excelled, with the former’s natural inclination to tuck in dovetailing nicely with Olsson’s equally natural desire to overlap. It works well and the second goal yesterday was a perfect example.
The rise and rise of Steven Whittaker has been well documented and continues apace. For large chunks of the first-half he found himself almost as an out-and-out right-winger and in doing so showed good touch and use of the ball.
He now looks a shadow of the once forlorn figure who struggled for form and confidence, and has benefited more than anyone from the new regime. He is one of several who looks as if he would run through walls for his manager.
It’s difficult to single out individuals across the midfield – all of whom contributed yesterday – but Alex Tettey in his role as ‘protector’ remains the glue that holds it together. He is also excellent – and was a point well made my Darren Eadie on Canary Call – at mopping up any potential calamities that occur in central defence.
As good as Seb Bassong and Russell Martin have been, both appear to have an error in them – as evidenced at Huddersfield – but with Tettey hovering just feet in front of them any uncertainty tends to be less costly. The support he offers in that area is invaluable.
But it wasn’t about individuals yesterday. The whole midfield functioned just as Master Neil must have dreamt it on Friday night, and when you have Nathan Redmond and Gary O’Neil to turn to if you need to freshen it up or rest some tiring limbs you know you are in decent shape.
A mention finally to Cameron Jerome who yesterday actually made me feel tired from watching him. As I seem to mention every week, the role of lone striker is a thankless one – made ever more exhausting by Neil’s desire to press and harangue opponents high up the pitch – but his appetite, work-rate and willingness to run the channels was truly phenomenal.
While Jerome may not have the grace of Grabban (like that?) there are ever increasing signs that the style has been adapted to suit his more robust approach. All too often in the past his lung-bursting runs have been ignored in favour of another sideways pass but, in a noticeable change in approach, both full-backs are now willing to release the ball a pass or two earlier.
And as for that sublime back-heel finish…
For one who has often been on the receiving end of the old ‘not a natural finisher’ accusation, it was a moment of genius that had it been on Match of the Day would have had Lineker, Shearer and co flicking through their book of footballing superlatives. And the Cantona/Henri-esque non-celebration was class personified.
So, one of the good days and, with a hat-tip to ‘that lot’, one that has seen us return to the cusp of the automatics. Yes, we still need a favour or two from elsewhere but I believe that five wins and a draw from the remaining seven will be good enough for second.
But brace yourselves – this is going to the wire.