The smile on Alex Neil’s face as he faced the cameras post-match told the story, as did the wide eyes and bulging veins as he reacted to Martin Olsson’s 93rd minute winner.
We’ve grown far too used to watching him unpick afternoons littered with heartbreak, disappointment and what ifs, and resort to more that a few of his signature “sorta” explanations. Yesterday he was spared all of that and the mix of joy and relief on his face was shared by everyone in the Canary nation.
He deserved his moment. So did the players. So did we.
The climax to 95 enthralling yet bum-squeaking minutes was right up there with the now legendary Simeon Jackson/Derby afternoon and if City go on to see the job through it too will be one to file away in the Canary annals. And the sight of clappers raining down in injury time was in stark contrast to their last Carrow Road outing.
For once the fine margins did break in City’s favour and, despite an improved second half from Newcastle, it would have been a travesty if they had emerged with a only a point or, even worse, none at all. Yet it could so easily have happened.
At 2-2 it would have taken either extreme bravery or madness – or both – to bet on a late City winner; less so plonking a few quid on a Mitrovic hat-trick.
But it was a day for trend-bucking and having endured that painful, late Adam Lallana heart-breaker back in late January, yesterday’s finale was payback time and was as glorious and thrilling as anything witnessed at Wembley ten and a bit months ago.
Late winners simply haven’t happened for us this season. Against us, yes, frequently, but the cruel twists of fate have invariably gone against us. But perhaps the tide has turned.
The ball did indeed touch the hand of Jonny Howson in the lead up to Olsson’s winner (twice apparently – thanks Alan) and however unintentional, and regardless of the technicalities of the rulebook, many a ref would have seen sufficient to blow for a free-kick.
Mike Dean, who is rapidly turning into a lucky charm for City in big games, saw fit to ignore it. Bless him.
And there was something fitting about the goal being scored by one whose influence on the mini-revival has almost gone unnoticed.
Olsson, since his return to the side for the draw with Man City, has been excellent and while not having the natural instincts in the attacking third of Robbie Brady he does possess instinctive defensive nous that the Irishman lacks.
In addition to the emergence of the commanding and composed figure of Timm Klose and the positive aura that has rubbed off on those around him, Olsson has offered solidity and reliability to the left side of a defence that has, for the most part, creaked.
His natural inclination to ‘tuck in’ when the ball is coming in from the opposite flank has helped immeasurably and in fairness is something that Russ and, yesterday, Andre Wisdom have also done successfully of late. All part of the reason why we are now that much more difficult to break down.
That England international Andros Townsend was a peripheral figure for the entire first-half was down to Olsson’s defensive surety and the protection offered to the Swede by Brady. The second-half saw Townsend influence the game to a greater degree but rarely was he allowed to go on the outside and only twice did he hurt us.
As a unit the Toon were a different proposition after the interval – it was inconceivable that they could be as ordinary as they were before the break – and the introduction Mitrovic certainly added an attacking presence that was simply not there before.
But, as alluded to by Alex in between the post-match smiles, the soft underbelly has gone and been replaced by a hardy resolve. And good old fashioned guts.
The response to Newcastle’s first equaliser was a prime example and as appropriate as it was that Olsson should be the hero it was equally fitting that, having endured a fortnight that most of us will thankfully be spared in a lifetime, Dieumerci Mbokani should make his mark on the afternoon.
His goal was stunning but it wasn’t just about the goal. He was simply too much for Messrs Taylor and Mbemba to handle, so much so that for a spell in the first-half they opted to not challenge him in the air, hoping against hope they could pick up the second ball.
The ball stuck to him back to goal, he offered an outlet to Klose and co if a long ball was the only option, he occasionally did a ‘Jerome’ in the channels, he linked cleverly with Steven Naismith and, crucially, he offered a constant goal threat – a part of his game that has not always been evident.
And he proved yesterday he has the heart of a lion.
The central midfield O’Neil/Howson combo continues to blossom and such is their exhaustive work-rate and desire they, for me, are morphing into a City version of the ‘Dogs of War‘ – just what’s needed when in the midst of a relegation battle.
When they need to dig in they do just that, when in possession of the ball they both use it wisely and efficiently and when a shield is needed in front of the centre-backs they provide one. Just what the manager ordered.
All in all it was one of the great days – the very reason we go – and to top it all the sights and sounds of the subs and absentees celebrating with the players on the pitch at the end added a little something extra and confirmed the true meaning of all being ‘in it together’.
If I were to be picky it would be that referee Dean didn’t see fit to celebrate Olsson’s winner in his usual manner, but perhaps he’s saving that for when (or if) safety is confirmed.
So, we’re on a roll, a tiny one for now, at the best possible time. The finishing line is still a way off but two wins on the bounce off the back of a draw with Man City strikes me as a team with momentum.
But whisper it quietly… and don’t tell Ray Wilkins.