Who saw that coming?
But there were clues of course, not least a starting XI that included most of City’s best players. And as it transpired the few crumbs of comfort that were taken from the draw at Griffin Park were able to be built upon.
Two clean sheets while in the midst of our current predicament are not be sneezed at and from somewhere, buoyed by Nelson Oliveira’s early opener, they produced a performance as good as anything we witnessed in the whole of 2016.
The Portuguese striker clearly, and deservedly, took centre stage with his ‘perfect hat-trick’ but it was one of those rare days when every single player performed to a level required to grind out points in the Championship. And lo and behold three points were duly delivered.
As an attacking force City were too much for the Rams to handle – even before Jacob Butterfield’s sending off – but it was the solid base of Ruddy, Pinto, Martin, Klose and Olsson that formed the basis of this win.
Having jettisoned Messrs Klose and Martin several games ago in favour of Ryan Bennett and Seb Bassong, partly as a result of the nightmare at the Amex, Alex Neil handed the pair an olive branch at Griffin Park and went all-in yesterday by re-uniting the pair in the centre of a back-four. And it worked.
It was solid, composed, no-messing when it needed to be, and the protection offered to John Ruddy was in sharp contrast to the ‘hot knife through butter’ version that has so epitomised this dreadful run of form. And when was Ruddy was called upon, most notably when one-on-one with Tom Ince with the score at 1-0, he too delivered.
Ivo Pinto was Ivo Pinto, and no-one has a problem with that, but most crucial of all was Martin Olsson’s brilliant containment of the aforementioned Ince, with the Rams most influential player being offered only scraps. Olsson was excellent and, whether or not he is among those looking to engineer a departure, still delivered his best performance of the season.
The midfield too functioned as a unit rather than individuals and the intelligent running and tenacity of Steven Naismith was key in offering space in which Oliveira and Wes could operate.
That Wes had one of his best days for ages was also crucial but for him to be afforded the time and space he was, and to appear to be afforded no special treatment (until Butterfield intervened), was a mistake on the part of Steve McClaren.
It was one of those days when the Irishman was simply unstoppable. They don’t, and won’t, happen every game and it’s important to note he’s no longer able to influence every game in the way he did yesterday but when he clicks so does the team. Alex Neil’s now left with the tricky task of identifying those particular days.
The manager, for his part, is also worthy of credit, particularly given the brickbats he’s suffered of late. He called it right on this occasion and managed to get a decent tune out of a squad who, for once, looked motivated hungry and focused.
And while it did him no favours, given the pressure he has been under of late we should turn a blind eye to his unnecessary ‘witch hunt’ post-match comment. It was just an unwise choice of words and I’m sure deep down he appreciates that any manager who oversees such a run should expect questions to be asked.
But it was a good day, one free of recriminations, and should be enjoyed for what it was: a fine win over a team who were unbeaten in ten games.
The Carrow Road crowd too played its part after a tetchy and grumpy opening 15 minutes and once the whole place had been settled by Oliveria’s opener it turned into quite a pleasurable experience, marred only slightly by the Barclay bizarrely choosing to laud a member of the opposition with their own team leading 3-0.
Yet it was a minor gripe on an afternoon that threatened to be “toxic” (a much over-used word) but turned out to be quite the opposite.
Small steps of course, and a draw at Brentford and a home win over Derby were the least we would have expected at the start of the season, but this was an improvement and something to be built upon.