City's prized assets prove worth again

Chris LakeyNorwich City 3, Exeter City 1: It's hard to believe Paul Lambert when he insists his phone hasn't rang with inquiries for some of his players. Either he's taken it off the hook, or he can do the best Mr Innocent straight-face answer in football.Chris Lakey

It's hard to believe Paul Lambert when he insists his phone hasn't rang with inquiries for some of his players.

Either he's taken it off the hook, or he can do the best Mr Innocent straight-face answer in football.

One newspaper was claiming yesterday that Gordon Strachan will be testing his phone manner over Wes Hoolahan, who he fancies as a replacement for Adam Johnson at Middlesbrough.

In Hoolahan he has a pint-sized destroyer of teams - in Grant Holt, he has the battering ram with the featherlight touch who is scoring goals for fun: 22 all told, 16 of them in the league.

There are more valuable commodities, including Lambert himself: Burnley's won't be the last managerial vacancy this season with which he will be linked.

Curious for a club that is �23m in debt and considering selling off its ground to ease the financial pressure that they should have such highly-prized assets - especially as they have helped City close the gap on leaders Leeds to just six points.

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But whatever the manager or any of his players say about spreading the praise around everyone, about how the defenders and strikers and subs are all as valuable as the men whose names grab the headlines every week, the truth is that if one of either Lambert, Holt or Hoolahan leaves City, they will find it almost impossible to replace him.

Which is why, presumably, Lambert shies away from any talk of players leaving, which his chairman and his chief executive have confirmed.

The supporting cast of players are all excellent, but they can be more easily replaced.

Try and find another Hoolahan, who can weave a pass through a gap that isn't there, who can put the ball on a sixpence - or another Holt, who reads his mind and moves into a space before anyone else has seen the pass.

Hoolahan was nominated for the Coca-Cola Player of the Month award for December, but missed out to Jermaine Beckford, the Leeds striker who scored four goals in six games - the same tally, incidentally, as Holt, who presumably wouldn't storm off in a huff after being subbed and who hasn't put in a transfer request.

Probably a good thing: any more prying eyes looking in this direction and Lambert might have some tempting figures put in front of him for their services.

Anyway, things don't always go better with Coke - although Lambert himself did lay to rest the theory that Manager of the Month awards bring only bad results, after picking up his on Saturday and then watching his team rather cruelly slap down the Grecians' resistance.

Exeter had armed themselves with three centre-backs, but even that wasn't enough to prevent Holt from nodding home Hoolahan's cross at the far post after just eight minutes.

It wasn't the way to defend against H&H: Exeter didn't appeared too worried about allowing Hoolahan to cross - or marking the scorer.

It was just what the game needed, and by starting with two strikers, Exeter had clearly come to take the game to City.

Unfortunately, aside from two brief flurries in the first half, Stuart Fleetwood and Adam Stansfield were peripheral figures and it wasn't until the visitors made three changes just after the hour mark that they began to look really dangerous.

City were passing the ball well, although there were a couple of frighteners when Fraser Forster took the ball off Stuart Fleetwood's toes and later in the first half reacted instinctively to keep out Alex Russell's close-range effort.

Adam Drury saw an effort palmed over, Paul Jones denied Michael Nelson after a corner and then had enough height to hold on to Simon Lappin's header.

It was comfortable at the break, but after Chris Martin was denied by Jones you began to sense that City definitely did need that second goal.

Exeter made their changes and began to pose an awful lot more problems.

Marcus Stewart chested the ball down for fellow sub Liam Sercombe who put a glorious volley just past a post while Forster had to push another Sercombe effort wide.

But it was City who scored next, Lappin finding Holt at the back post and the striker hooking the ball back for Chris Martin to slot home from five yards.

That should have been it, and it would have been had Exeter's two subs not combined again, this time to better effect.

Nelson headed the ball out, Sercombe controlled it on his chest and then fired goalwards.

The ball bounced a yard in front of Forster, which may have been the reason he spilled it. Stewart was lurking, and with more than 600 league appearances to his name wasn't going to be denied his 199th league goal.

A jink - or in his case merely a step - to his right and the swing of a 37-year-old right leg later, and Exeter were back in the game. For a minute, at least.

They say teams are at their most vulnerable just after they've scored, and with Hoolahan on the ball, it simply doubles the danger.

Exeter had players up, and their defenders were pushed close to the halfway line when Hoolahan took possession.

He took a few paces into the Exeter half and saw Holt poised, trying to stay onside.

Exeter didn't spot it, they played him on, prompting Hoolahan's glorious ball between two opponents.

Holt chased it, went to the left of Jones and stabbed it in with his right foot from six yards.

It was, finally, game over, although for City fans there was a little sideshow, when new signing Oli Johnson was brought on for Hoolahan on 83 minutes.

Within minutes he'd taken possession midway inside Exeter's half, waltzed around numerous players, meandered left and then towards the area, from where he fired in a right-foot shot which was just wide of the post.

Had he scored it would have been a simply sensational goal and might just have stolen the headlines from Hoolahan and Holt.

And that takes some doing.