The trouble with 7-0 wins is that they set the bar impossibly high.
And it wasn’t just the seven goals. It was the quality of performance; the ebb and flow; the relentlessness; the precision.
What followed was only ever going to be a pale imitation in terms of its beauty.
While some were expecting another five-star showing if not seven goals, others were fearful of an after the Lord Mayor’s show afternoon.
As it transpired, it was neither of the above but we instead delivered a ‘dirty 1-0’ of the type described by Daniel Farke post-Huddersfield; the type of victory that via completely different means, brings just as much satisfaction.
And fair play to Rooney’s Derby™ for making it a tough second half for City. The Rams played well, like a side not yet 100 per cent free of relegation worries, and had they have salvaged a point from the game, only the most blinkered of Canary could have contested its worthiness.
But they didn’t get a point, and for the first time in six attempts, we emerged from a contest against Derby with a maximum; this one every bit as sweet as the one on Tuesday night. Sweet because as well as edging us ever closer to the big prize, it showed a quality in this City team that will be called upon a lot next season.
And I mean a lot.
I speak, of course, of the need to dig in when the tide has turned against and the ability to grind out results on days when opponents have found the antidote to our easy-on-the-eye pass and move football. And dare I suggest that next season, there will be more of those type of days than those where the Farkeball flows.
So, aside from another invaluable three points, yesterday was also a useful dress rehearsal for 2021-22, when the stage will be bigger and the opponents more daunting.
That City emerged unscathed from that testing second half examination was promising, especially as the key player – a big old lump of Dumfries granite that’s plonked in the centre of that back four – will be leading the charge next season.
Like most of his colleagues, Grant Hanley will not have enjoyed his last venture into the so-called big time, and the sight of him, head in hands, just seven minutes into said venture – when he diverted Divock Origi’s cross past Tim Krul – was the beginning of a campaign littered with injuries and uncertainty.
The Grant Hanley we see today is a very different beast. A bullish, confident leader of men who, thanks to some outstanding coaching on the fields of Colney, is now an able technician; one able to literally set the (Farke)ball rolling; able to receive the ball in difficult situations and resist the urge to hoof it; able to play one-twos with Tim Krul to work an angle for a pass to Oliver Skipp or the Mayor.
And that’s a side to Hanley that’s been hitherto unseen. The other side to him, the part we already knew, has been further enhanced by a prolonged run of good health and fitness, and we have seen him emerge a Malky Mackay/Duncan Forbes type figure who inspires those around him to be better.
Hanley won’t, of course, figure in the running for the Barry Butler trophy or be included in any player-of-the-Championship polls, but one could argue that he, even ahead of Emi Buendia or Teemu Pukki, is the most vital cog in this team.
It’s a phrase I over-use (before anyone reminds me) but for Buendia, Cantwell, Pukki and co to weave their magic, there has to be a rock-solid base. Hanley, along with Ben Gibson and latterly Andrew Omobamidele, are that solid base.
For City to negotiate that second 45 yesterday, when the legs were weary, the minds muddled and the passing lacking in zip and precision, we needed Hanley at his very best. And he was at his very best.
I’d not particularly followed Grant’s career path prior to his arrival in Norwich, but it’s hard to imagine him ever having played consistently at the level he’s playing at right now. The transformation has been astounding; from old-fashioned stopper to a centre-back comfortable with the ball at his feet whose role is pivotal in a team that prides itself in keeping the ball.
The wacky world of punditry often tries to slap the ‘slow. cumbersome centre-half’ label on him (I’m looking at you, Don Goodman), but anyone who has actually watched him play will know that he’s anything but. I too, prior to his arrival, thought the same but I’d now argue that over ten metres – perhaps Placheta aside – he’s as quick as anyone in the squad. And those first ten metres for a centre-back are what really count.
And it’s off the back of that turn of pace, he retains that core ability to defend – his bread and butter. Along with Tim Krul, Max Aarons, Dimitris Giannoulis and his centre-back partner of the day, he is part of a defence, the like of which we have dreamt of for many years.
And on that subject, worth noting is that the much-vaunted Sheffield United defence of 2018-19 – the one that reportedly enabled them to flourish in PL season one – conceded 41 goals in their 46 games that season. Well, *drum roll*, this City defence has conceded only 28 in 41.
So, for all of Kieran Dowell’s brilliance – and it was a simply brilliant free-kick – there was another hero yesterday; one who has been a respectful one step behind our superstars all season but whose role has been pivotal, providing said superstars with a both a platform and rocksteady support.
All hail the King of Dumfries.
While you’re here…
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