“The biggest derby there’s ever been between the two clubs”.
Not my words, but those of Alex Neil. And coming from one who doesn’t really deal in hyperbole that is some statement – not that I’m about to argue.
Perspective is always an elusive beast when the phrase ‘Norwich v Ipswich’ rolls off the tongue but with the prize so massive it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where more could be riding on two games of Old Farm football.
Typically the next six days will be a heady cocktail of nervousness and excitement for supporters both sides of the border but it was reassuring to hear the words of Neil and Bradley Johnson post-match, both of whom recognised it as “one for the fans”.
From their professional perspective they are just another two games of football – albeit two hugely important games – and that was music to the ears. Yes, they understand completely the magnitude but both games will be tackled through a steely gaze rather than wide eyes – just how they should be.
For fans of course it’s the complete opposite, and to try and play it down and approach it as ‘just another game’ is futile. Any wistful thoughts of victory are quickly curtailed by the prospect of the pain that would accompany defeat. Yet, as ever, other than to shout ourselves hoarse there is not a thing we can do to affect it.
Ironically, after 29 years of hurt yesterday’s win over Fulham was something of an anti-climax. The misery inflicted on us over the years by the Cottagers has been well documented – and very painful – but when it finally arrived victory was greeted with something of an understandable shrug.
For once the focus of the faithful was not wholly on the Carrow Road pitch, but also on events as they unravelled in Blackburn, Derby, Brentford and Middlesbrough.
Yet a win against Kit Symon’s under-achievers, given all that has gone before, should still be cause for a minor celebration – even if those in white did breathe new life into the phrase ‘on the beach’.
While it may of course have been a rumour, those walking past the back of the Geoffrey Watling stand pre-match reported the smell of suntan oil, rather than embrocation, emanating from the visitors’ changing room. In addition, the only explanation I have for Hugo Rodallega’s miss before half-time was that he was already donning his flip-flops.
But there was still a game to be won and there have been plenty of occasions of late where City have failed to turn over underwhelming opponents. Yesterday they were focussed, professional and ruthless. It was ideal preparation for what lies ahead and there was much to admire.
While the sponsors’ man-of-the-match was predictably Bradley Johnson – who nabbed some champagne with which to fill the well deserved Barry Butler trophy – the eye-catching performance of a fit-again Elliott Bennett at right-back was certainly worthy of a mention, and won’t have been lost on his manager.
Clearly the acid test of a full-back is when faced with a flying out-and-out winger, and to my knowledge Benno is yet to be tested in this regard, but his ability to link with Nathan Redmond, allied to his natural inclination to attack will certainly have offered Team Neil some food for thought.
He was impressive – no question – and having suffered a miserable run of injuries is due some good luck that, hopefully, is just around the corner.
Gary O’Neil too made light of little recent game time and slotted seamlessly into the role of the fetcher and carrier. With Fulham giving him time and space to pick a pass it looked a stroll in the park from one whose recent play-off experience may well be a significant factor.
With Graham Dorrans making a second-half cameo, we were treated to the sight of two pass masters plying their trade in the centre of the park and it was heartening to see City again retaining possession so comfortably – something that will be much harder to achieve in six days time when faced with men in blue who have been feasting on raw meat.
Vadid Odjidja-Ofoe was another to make his mark with a decent cameo and showed how the ‘number 10’ role can be undertaken effectively using strength and power as opposed to Wesley’s favoured style of trickery and tenacity. It was another that will have registered with the boss.
So, a good way to sign off the regular season and a performance to blow away any lingering cobwebs that may have gathered as a result of two games without a win. It feels as if normal service has been resumed and we now enter the play-offs in decent fettle.
Whether the fettle is decent enough to see off opponents who are tenacious and dogged in the extreme will only be decided by the passage of time, and it’s important we approach the next two games in that manner. A four game winning run against Ipswich has been brilliant for the Y’Army, but counts for nothing as of 12:15 next Saturday.
The slate is clean and everything is up for grabs.
I was chatting post-match with a fellow RiverEndian (it’s in the Oxford English dictionary, I promise) who predicted a re-run of the 1985 Milk Cup semi-final – a narrow away defeat followed by a more emphatic home win – and, while he may well have a point, I’m unsure the nerves could take it.
To be in arrears against that lot for seven whole days sounds like absolute agony.
But we’ll see.
Neil and Johnson, in their aforementioned post-match interviews, were both keen to steer clear of any bravado in the lead-up to the first leg and were, as Chris Goreham put it, “careful not to do Mick McCarthy’s team-talk for him”. And that’s definitely the right way to go.
In terms of the banter war, the opening salvo was fired by Town’s travelling support at Blackburn yesterday who reportedly produced a banner proclaiming; “We are Premier League”.
Like I said, we’ll see.