New heights had our heads in the clouds

OK, hands up; who spent at least part of New Year's Eve talking up the prospect of a prosperous 2006 and toasting a fun-filled trip to the end-of-season play-off final in May? Yes, me too.

OK, hands up; who spent at least part of New Year's Eve talking up the prospect of a prosperous 2006 and toasting a fun-filled trip to the end-of-season play-off final in May?

Yes, me too.

Having pulled themselves to within a point of the play-off places with a fifth successive victory at Leicester, you could hardly blame Norwich City fans for getting a touch carried away as they welcomed in the New Year on Saturday night.

Promotion was back on the agenda. It was time to take a close look at the upper echelons of the Championship table - hitherto dim and distant pastures this season - and assess the opposition.

Reading are as good as promoted; Sheffield United can only throw it away. But what of those all-important play-off spots?

Which four teams did we think stood the best chance of going into the winner takes all shoot-out come the end of the regular season? Simple: Leeds, Palace, Wolves and, yes, Norwich. Forget the rest; those four, we felt, were far and away the best equipped to secure a place in the play-offs.

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Then along came Preston. Talk about a rude awakening. Not only did they leave with three thoroughly deserved points, they well and truly played the Canaries off the park.

By general consensus Preston were comfortably the best team seen at Carrow Road for some time and on Monday's evidence you have to give them every chance of repeating last year's feat and making the play-offs again.

Moreover, it was pretty much evident why a certain Norwich midfielder found himself unable to command a place in the Lillywhites' line-up. It's interesting to note Nigel Worthington has this week made Dickson Ethuhu's transfer move permanent. The issue certainly generated intense debate among the City fans I was sitting with on Monday.

On the subject of transfers, what now of Dean Ashton? What, we wondered, was he thinking as he stood forlornly on the half-way line, hands on hips, waiting for the restart as Preston celebrated their third goal?

Perhaps he was musing over referee Nigel Miller's latest pitiful attempt to persuade the Preston players to return to their own half anytime before next New Year's Eve. Or maybe, just maybe, City's star striker was contemplating his future?

Five straight wins can have only helped the argument for persuading Ashton to stay and help Norwich clinch an immediate return to the top flight. Suffice to say, Monday's drubbing won't exactly strengthen the cause.

So, does he stay, or does he go? A circa £7 million pound offer might prove too good to refuse, but of course it's little beer compared to the riches on offer if Norwich can get back to the Premiership at the first attempt. 'If' being the operative word.

Ashton remains the class act at Carrow Road - given the right service, mind. Elsewhere, there remains reasons for optimism. Robert Green appears to have dismissed any talk of leaving; Gary Doherty has become an increasingly impressive lynchpin of a settled defence. A word, too, for the way club skipper Craig Fleming has returned to the back four and shown he still has a lot to offer at this level. Much like Paul McVeigh.

The problem, all too evident throughout this campaign, lies in midfield. Without Youssef Safri, Norwich simply lack sufficient quality to dictate games. We have to hope the Moroccan returns from international duty unscathed.

Nigel Worthington didn't appear unduly concerned by the Preston defeat and in fairness you have to be happy with a return of nine points from four back-to-back games over Christmas.

Equally, the five straight wins before the Preston setback point to what the Canaries are capable of in what is, let's face it, an ordinary Championship.

The play-offs are still there for the taking, especially if Ashton stays. Perhaps we'll have a clearer idea on that score this weekend. If Ashton plays in the FA Cup against West Ham on Saturday it can only be a good sign.

Thereafter, an instant return to winning ways in the league is nigh on critical. History suggests 75 points will secure a top six finish. In simple terms, then, Norwich need another 37 points from their final 18 league games, at an average of two points a game in other words.

It's a big ask. With Dean Ashton there's a chance. Without him, I have my doubts.