Gary O’Neil deserves his place in Norwich City’s starting line-up

Norwich City's Gary O'Neil battles for the ball with Swansea City's Bafetimbi Gomis. Photo: Chris Ra

Norwich City's Gary O'Neil battles for the ball with Swansea City's Bafetimbi Gomis. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Asked to name a player who has appeared in every one of the last 26 first-team squads of 18 put out by Alex Neil what would your answer be? John Ruddy? Sebastien Bassong? Wes Hoolahan?

While all those may be correct (for the purposes of this column I haven't checked their records), how long would it take to come up with Gary O'Neil?

Yet that is the case. In fact the last time the 32-year-old's name wasn't on the City team-sheet for a league or cup game was on March 17, 2015, the 2-2 draw away to Huddersfield.

And with the way things have gone for him in recent weeks it seems unlikely this will change, injury permitting of course.

Which is testament to the fantastic job the former Portsmouth and West Ham man has quietly done to force his way into Neil's first-team thinking.

It's fair to say O'Neil's signing, by Neil Adams on a two-year deal in August 2014, was not only a surprise, but went a little bit under the radar at the time.

With so many midfielders remaining at the club following relegation, it was hard to see where he would fit in. And so it pretty much proved under Adams, and then initially Alex Neil when he took over the reins.

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But City's Scottish gaffer clearly didn't take long to see something he likes in the man, as O'Neil soon became a squad regular, albeit appearing on the pitch infrequently and often only towards the end of a game.

Although a decent player who did nothing wrong during those brief cameos, there was little to suggest he'd figure more heavily in the Premier League. It seemed more likely he'd follow others out of the door either permanently or on a loan deal.

But quite the opposite has happened.

Not only has his place in the squad remained, he's spent more time on the pitch and not just when the game is all but over.

I bet even O'Neil himself would not have predicted that a dozen games in he'd be in the starting XI against Swansea – deservedly so –and play an integral part in such an important victory.

What I like about him is the calm and unfussy way he goes about his game. He makes few mistakes, breaks down play then effectively plays the link-man role, moving the ball on to those with creative responsibilities.

This is highlighted by some of the statistics from the Swansea game, in which his three interceptions were Norwich's highest, his 39 successful passes were second in a yellow shirt to Wes Hoolahan and his seven ball recoveries (when a player wins a loose ball) City's third highest.

Don't expect to see O'Neil ranting and raving or tearing around all four corners of the pitch. However, what Neil sees in him is probably that he is an experienced player able to have a positive influence on the players around him.

I've witnessed him against Swansea and West Brom this season and both performances reminded me of David Fox at Carrow Road – a similar-styled midfielder who made more than 30 appearances in the 2011/12 Premier League season.

While pace is a big factor in the modern day world of the Premier League, and O'Neil is lacking in that area, what players like he and Fox possess are pace of mind to make up for it.

The pedestrian manner in which Swansea played against City also suited him well, giving him time to get into position and dictate play.

Whether he will be so suited to the style of our opponents Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday remains to be seen, but there's no denying O'Neil has given his manager another strong option in the middle of the park for the months to come.

FAB FOUR

City on course for season's goal

1: Almost a third of the season in and City are exactly where they need to be - above the relegation zone. We all wanted, and many predicted, the Canaries would be battling for a spot in the top half of the table this season, but such expectations were over optimistic. This is a season about safety and survival so City can kick-on next year. I'm sticking by my original 16th place prediction.

Rudd needs to kickstart career

2: Although I'd argued it was time for keeper John Ruddy to take a back seat for a while, you can't help but be impressed when a manager comes out to back him like Alex Neil did. It was a fantastic message of belief to give all of his first-team players, not just Ruddy. But where does this leave perennial bench warmer Declan Rudd, who turns 25 in January, is very much no longer a kid and needs to kick on with his career?

Small margins make a difference

3: If ever there was a match to highlight that football is a game of margins it was the Canaries' 1-0 Premier League victory against Swansea. Had Johnny Howson not snuck in front of the defender for that winning goal many would have walked away from Carrow Road bemoaning a poor performance in which too much possession was conceded at home, rather than a tactical masterstroke by the gaffer.

Goalkeeper tactic worked a treat

4: Well done to whomever it was at the club who had clearly done their homework on Swansea keeper Lukasz Fabianski – it certainly played a big part in the victory. After every corner City players noticeably swarmed around him, nudging, shoving and generally trying to hurry him up and make him flustered. The tactic worked a treat when he made a bad throw to open up the shot for the corner which led to the goal.

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