Defence gives spark to aid City revival

STEVE GEDGE One questions burns more fiercely than any other concerning events at Norwich City over the past three weeks.


One questions burns more fiercely than any other concerning events at Norwich City over the past three weeks.

Not, did someone at St Andrews watch a video of the 1972 FA Cup final and really decide that the new Birmingham strip just wouldn't be complete without the sock number tags once popularised by Leeds?

Or, how did 1,257 Blackpool supporters make a greater noise at Carrow Road than the Birmingham 'following' - and I use the term in its loosest sense - of just 626?

Or, just how unnecessary was it for a club who play in red such as Stoke, who therefore have to make quite a few normal colour switches, to turn up in a change kit at Norwich on Saturday?

Or, how is it that with just three home fixtures left, the biggest Carrow Road attendance of the season remains the 25,513 present for the entirely forgettable defeat by Plymouth?

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No, you have to ask yourself over and over again, how did the Canaries start winning back-to-back games with clean sheets?

Because just over three weeks ago City looked a totally disinterested and dispirited side when they somehow scrambled a draw against Coventry. If they'd been a stable of horses rather than a football team then at least half of them would have been shot. Over that weekend you really did start to look at the top of the League Two table and start planning for the club's first visit to Hartlepool since 1949.

Some people after that game continued to maintain that City were too good to go down, but football history has been littered with the names of sides who shouldn't have been relegated but still were.

After a performance such as the one against the Sky Blues you feared the worst. It was more than a blip, it extended a poor home spell to a run of just one win in four at Carrow Road - a record which makes just two words spring to mind: 'relegation' and 'form'.

But since then, though, how things have changed. I'm happy to write off the defeat at Cardiff - now that really was a blip - as one of those days, while losing at home to Derby wasn't helped by certain refereeing decisions, but at least it was a thoroughly battling display.

Aside from those two games, you're looking at four wins - a feat which, while seeming possible given the quality of Norwich's squad even without Robert Earnshaw, still looked fairly unlikely at any point since the turn of the year.

While the win at Luton was a hard-fought and not thoroughly convincing affair, and perhaps the Canaries should have scored more than three times in beating Barnsley, against both Birmingham and Stoke you can have nothing but praise for two totally committed performances against decent opposition.

Let's not forget that Birmingham were top, while Stoke were within seconds of winning at Sunderland and would surely have come to Carrow Road still harbouring slight play-off ambitions.

At no time did City look like a lower-half team this past week. Had the needless two points not been dropped at Wolves when the Canaries conceded a late equaliser in December, plus the further eight they would surely have taken off Plymouth, Wolves and Coventry with a fit Earnshaw to call upon, they would now be just four points off the play-off zone with a game in hand. And that's the sort of quality team they looked like against both Birmingham and Stoke.

It's why plenty of fans - not just myself - have been so critical of the Canaries since the turn of the year. Everyone knows they are far, far better than a side currently standing 15th in the Championship.

And it's not just paying punters who realise that. Witness Chris Brown's recent words in the EDP: "We're a good side WHEN WE WANT TO BE, so there is no reason why we can't get a result." That was before the trip to Cardiff, but it could frankly have been said before any league fixture this season.

If any indication of City's potential is needed, then consider this. When Adam Drury went off injured early on Saturday, it brought back unhappy memories of the same thing happening when Stoke played here four years ago.

On that occasion, as opposed to Saturday, City had no ready-made replacement and had to bring on Chris Llewellyn. Now the Welsh international might be many things, but a left-back isn't one of them. The crowd got right on his back as the Canaries surrendered a 2-0 lead in a 2-2 draw, and it wasn't that much longer before he left Carrow Road altogether.

Another factor that City didn't possess back in February 2003 was an on-fire Darren Huckerby.

After careful consideration, two reasons spring to mind as to why the Canaries suddenly seem a much more committed and unified bunch. You sense that Peter Grant must be happier that he is starting to get the off-the-field team he wanted rather than the one he inherited, but however good your management structure might be, it'll count for little if your big players go missing.

And City's No 6 simply hasn't looked back since his double strike at Tamworth in January. I'd always felt that Dion Dublin was a nailed-on certainty for player-of-the-year honours, but now I'm not so sure.

With nine goals in 14 games, and surely more to come, Huckerby could yet beat him to it with the kind of displays that hark back to City's title-winning season.

He'd certainly clean up in any goal-of-the-year contest, though, with Saturday's strike adding to an already-impressive tally. Mind you, it's not hard to imagine that there would have been times at Carrow Road when Chris Martin's intuitive backheel would get rewarded with the sight of the number 35 going up on the subtitutes' board because with touches like that you're entering 'three Fs' territory.

With no parachute money next season, City's chances of glory are certainly going to be reduced, but performances and goals such as the ones we've seen this past week offer real grounds for hope to last the entire close season, never mind the forthcoming international break.

The last time the Canaries had to sit and twiddle their thumbs while England took centre-stage, they returned to lose just once in their next seven league fixtures. On the evidence of the Birmingham and Stoke victories, a similar run ought to be well within their capabilities.