Monday, February 25, 2013
Liberation lingered in the air at Carrow Road. Norwich City may have cause to reflect on this Premier League win as a pivotal moment in their struggle.
Both in the hard-earned three points and the emotional outpouring that swirled around the old stadium, triggered by Grant Holt’s stoppage time winner, it was about more than a first league win in 10 games. It was a re-affirmation of City’s Premier League credentials.
When the euphoria subsided from another wonderfully unpredictable Carrow Road finale, talk will inevitably drift from a desperate search for a first league victory since mid-December to the embryonic stirrings of a fresh four-match unbeaten run. How infinitesimally small the margins are at this rarefied level of the professional game.
Norwich have suffered plenty of low blows since a landmark defeat at West Brom just before Christmas ended their club-record Premier League surge – not all of them confined to the fight for their top flight status.
The seismic tumult between Kei Kamara’s prodigious leap for an 84th minute equaliser and Holt’s sweeping close range finish were the sweetest moments of Hughton’s Norwich City tenure. Better than wins over Arsenal and Manchester United, when placed in the context of their battle for survival and the gathering sense of revival amongst enough of those clubs lurking beneath to induce heightened levels of anxiety with each winless episode.
This was the rejuvenative jolt Norwich’s players and support base badly needed. That much was evident in the symbiotic celebrations by the corner of the Jarrold Stand. It matters. It matters so much to so many people because the elixir of the Premier League is a drug no-one wants to give up. Cold, wet nights at Oakwell do not carry the same global appeal.
Draws helped City keep their station in the standings, but a win and a victory in such stirring fashion injects renewed confidence; an intangible commodity City can ride for the remaining months of a season that should end in a successful climax.
Dissect this contest and Everton were undeniably the better side for the majority; which only serves to illustrate the scale of the feat to overcome David Moyes’ men at the finish. Moyes has harnessed the unpredictability of Marouane Fellaini and the latent creativity of diminutive midfielders like Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman within a solid shape given ballast by England internationals such as Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines.
That was the scale of the task facing Norwich. Character and spirit are mere words without deeds. City’s detractors employ them to sneeringly highlight the perceived gap in quality or technical ability when they face seemingly superior Premier League rivals. But Norwich have them in abundance. Allied to a degree of obduracy that arms them with a collective belief they can still salvage something from a game Everton criminally had failed to put beyond them.
The Toffees’ abrasive manager did himself few favours with his prickly reaction at the final whistle when he headed straight to confront referee Lee Mason over a perceived laxness in his interpretation of the amount of additional time. It was churlish, but the frustration was entirely understandable. In more reflective mood, the Glaswegian’s ire will focus on the defensive shortcomings of his Champions-League hopefuls.
A trait Norwich exploited on Merseyside earlier this season when Sebastien Bassong’s close range header reared up and beyond Tim Howard to salvage a point in time added on.
Everton failed to heed the lessons of history. Bassong rose majestically again to flick Russell Martin’s cross down into the path of Holt. The centre-back’s toughest aerial assignment was edging dancing partner Kamara out of the way.
Martin’s spirit of adventure bordered on the reckless. But it was a joyous sight as the right-back reacted quickest to gather a knockdown on the edge of the Everton box before veering to the left flank to curl an inviting far post centre. It was symptomatic of an afternoon when Norwich brokered a degree of gambler’s instinct instead of the rigidity that has left them open to criticism in recent times.
For that Hughton must take as much credit as his battling players. Only Holt’s untimely injury on the eve of Fulham’s visit prevented him from overseeing a policy shift in the search for goals. City’s fit-again skipper was paired in tandem with Luciano Becchio. Wes Hoolahan’s craft was re-deployed to a wider left position.
It was a bold call, a calculated switch designed to offer a muscular threat in favour of the more refined incursions from the Irishman which opponents have managed to nullify of late.
In truth, it was an experiment with limited success. Becchio still needs time to adjust to the demands of Premier League football and a different style of play, but Hughton was brave enough to twist again when half-time did little to alter Everton’s territorial hegemony.
Another goal at this stage for the visitors looked a far more realistic prospect than a Norwich equaliser. Hughton unleashed Kamara on an unsuspecting Toffees’ backline. The damage inflicted was devastating. Within a minute of his arrival the on-loan striker had tested Howard with a bicycle kick before another header flashed wide under pressure from Seamus Coleman.
Kamara was an athletic blur of drag backs and potent intent; a zestful infusion of energy; a power source for his team-mates to tap into. Everton elected to drop deeper in search of protection. City pushed into the space vacated and pounded away. Felliani ceded aerial mastery to Kamara when he towered above the Belgian to despatch Robert Snodgrass’ near post corner.
The force was now with Hughton’s men – and everyone inside Carrow Road sensed it. Holt was denied by a desperate lunge from Sylvain Distin inside Howard’s six-yard box, before the defender was sufficiently distracted by a leaping Bassong and close ally Kamara in the game’s decisive act.
Hughton was embraced by his coaching staff. Holt was submerged under a sea of delirious team-mates. Bedlam erupted on the terraces. It was a moment framed in time that felt every bit as special as any on the giddy ascent from League One.