When City lost at home to angry Sean Dyche’s Burnley back in the bad old days of Project Restart I suggested we open talks with Notts County fans to borrow their song.
It really did feel like the wheel had fallen off our barrow.
We (typically) lost that game, ended it with nine men, were adrift at the bottom of the league and without a prayer.
Last night had shades of 18 July – with one striking similarity but two humongous differences.
Yes, Emi Buendia saw red again (not literally last night) but even with the kitchen sink, the kitchen units, the worktops and the contents of all the cupboards thrown at us, we still somehow won.
And while Dyche’s contempt amounted to him kicking sand in the face of a team destined for the drop, Michael O’Neill was left talking up the “best team we’ve faced” and one that included “the best striker in the division”.
While the wheel may have fallen off, we still managed to get across the line. Unbelievably so.
The fallout could be costly but, for now, we should revel in what was undoubtedly the best win of the season so far.
Daniel Farke’s Monday lunchtime injury bulletin was of the X-rated variety – ten names on a list of injuries that varied to short to long term – so we knew the starting XI would have a slightly unfamiliar look, but even with Alex Tettey making his first start of the season and Josh Martin making his first start [full stop], there was a pleasing flow to City’s attacking play before it all started to go belly up.
Tettey showed no sign of the rustiness that could have been expected, while Martin showed no nerves, no fear and an understanding of Farkeball borne of hours and hours of coaching on the fields of Colney.
Different personnel, same pleasing passing rhythms on show when it clicked.
But there is a different, more pragmatic feel to this iteration of Norwich City; one that has sacrificed some of the swash and buckle for a defensive solidity that can help grind out ugly 1-0s.
That’s not to say the pleasing passing patterns have gone anywhere. As demonstrated perfectly by last night’s first goal, the ability to shift the ball sweetly and at speed is still there when the time is right.
Most notable, apart from its beauty, was the appreciation by Buendia of those who collectively created that opportunity for him. No me-me-me self-indulgence from the Argentinian but instead the epitome of a team player who looked like he was enjoying himself.
Looked. Past tense. He didn’t enjoy the final half-an-hour.
But Emi did hang around long enough to serve up a second goal for Teemu Pukki who, ominously for the rest of the league, is starting to resemble a 2018-19 vintage. The excellence of Buendia’s beautifully weighted and executed through ball was only matched by the Finn’s unerring left-foot finish.
So far so good but the first sign that things were about to go awry came when Krul signalled to the bench that his race was run. Whether it’s a full on muscle pull or just a strain, it’s not one that’s going to go away in a few days.
Enter Michael McGovern.
Minus the calming presence of Krul, it did feel just one defensive howler away from unravelling, although in fairness there was a rare sense of unease at the back last night, even from minute one, probably due to the simple fact of Stoke being a decent side.
City’s third may have gone a little against the grain, but it mattered not. Despite Stoke responding to what was clearly an O’Neill half-time rocket, Martin’s pass and Pukki’s perfectly timed-run ended with the Finn using his left shin to excellent effect.
But even at 3-0 it was still twitchy and nervy. I couldn’t work out why at the time. (Must have been my sixth sense telling me Emi was about to do an Emi).
The first booking was harsh and having gone through one central defender, the Argentinian was simply stronger as he challenged the other. The audible screaming and yowling – one of the most infuriating aspects of empty stadia – may have played its part.
The second booking, also accompanied by said yowling (intensified by Stoke realising Emi was on a yellow), was unfortunately a no-brainer for referee Eltringham.
But this wasn’t the petulant, niggly Buendia that saw red against Burnley. This version was motivated and in the zone. An error of judgment, a costly one but – if there is such a thing – one that came from a good place.
In the words of a wise man, he’d won us the game but then went on to almost lose us the game.
That Tyrese Campbell pulled a goal back before City had even cleared their heads was merely the start of some industrial scale buttock-clenching.
Pukki’s withdrawal due to a tight hamstring – hopefully only precautionary – left City with precious little presence in the final third but there was also the problem of getting the ball there in the first place. It wasn’t happening.
With Stoke dominating possession it was hard for City to get out and as a result that backline dropped deeper and deeper until virtually camped on the edge of McGovern’s six-yard box.
Christoph Zimmermann giving Nathan Collins a freebie from an in-swinging corner for the Potters’ second was far from ideal either, and at that stage it was hard to see us hanging on for point let alone all three.
But this group is made of sterner stuff than that half-@rsed bunch who waved the white flags in unison during Project Restart. The new personnel and the summer refresh have turned a bunch of losers into a squad of winners.
Stoke will argue that McGovern rather than Lee Gregory was culpable for them having a third goal chalked off but despite being unable to to barely get out of the defensive third, City somehow managed to see it through.
Quite where this leaves us when it comes to cobbling together a starting XI for Saturday can wait until Friday – probably Saturday morning – but, for now, let’s marvel at three of our hardest earned points for some time.
In the second tier, away trips don’t come much tougher than Middlesbrough and Stoke, and to have emerged, even with a depleted squad, with six points was quite the achievement.
The weeks ahead will be tough, McGovern is capable but no Krul and we potentially face going into some games with no out-and-out strikers, but what last night proved is that this squad has regained that belief they can win any game in any given set of circumstances.
And that’s priceless. Especially when the barrow is wheel-less.