Cometh the hour cometh the man
Norwich City strode out on to centre stage on Saturday and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and rarely let go, suffocating a Preston side to such an extent that you could see the confidence draining out of them by the minute. It's what happens when you are one place off the bottom of the table and come up against a team that takes few prisoners nowadays.
You wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson left his son's office at Deepdale with a yellow and green scarf – and let's face it, they're not hard to come by where he works – around his neck.
Even a man with such renowned paternal instincts as his would have been hard pushed to make a case for son Darren's Preston team on Saturday.
One assumes he didn't have to worry about paying for a ticket, even though Preston cut their pricing policy to shreds to try and persuade the locals to support them. 'Put on a show', said Darren. They did: a no-show.
Norwich strode out on to centre stage and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and rarely let go, suffocating a Preston side to such an extent that you could see the confidence draining out of them by the minute. It's what happens when you are one place off the bottom of the table and come up against a team that takes few prisoners nowadays.
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City weren't just bright and good to watch, they were strong and belligerent and commanding. They strut with an air of authority.
Those who witnessed a little cameo just before half-time will vouch for that. It happened a few yards outside the City area and brought together City old boy Darel Russell and the man who replaced him in the summer, Andrew Crofts. Russell is no shrinking violet – as he proved when he and Crofts squared up to each other during a game against Brighton last season. But on Saturday there was only one winner: Crofts bit into the first tackle and then, when the ball ran loose, bit again. The 1,600 City fans behind the goal loved it. Crofts can pass the ball a bit, no fear, but he doesn't take any prisoners either.
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By then Preston had just about run out of ammunition: Jon Parkin had forced John Ruddy into a low blocking save, but it's hard to come up with anything more problematic for the City keeper in the first period – as long as you don't count Elliott Ward's wayward headed back-pass which had him scrambling to his right to palm away.
City on the other hand, were a major threat. It didn't take long for them to settle and start causing panic in the home defence. A burst of pinball saw Leon Barnett stab one goalwards with 'keeper Andy Lonergan forced to push the ball out for a corner from which Grant Holt rattled the crossbar with a towering header as he left Sean St Ledger rooted to the turf.
David Gray cleared Ward's toe-poke off the line while Holt splinterted Lonergan's right hand post on the stroke of half-time with a thundering left-foot volley after Wes Hoolahan got the better of centre-half St Ledger as they went for a header on the penalty spot.
When your centre forward hits the woodwork twice and you have an effort cleared off the line you do begin to wonder if it's not your day, but City kept at it with the confidence of a team that knows a goal will come.
And just after the hour mark it did, Chris Martin nicking the ball left to Wes Hoolahan who, befitting the manner of his excellent performance, saw Korey Smith on the right side of the area and dropped the ball on to his foot. Smith is mature beyond his years and instead of trying to become the hero, saw the sensible option was to simply knock it first time into the path of Holt, who, with Wayne Brown charging in, slotted it past the 'keeper. Typical Holt, typical City.
Holt, by his own honest admission, hasn't been at his best of late, but he was instantly recognisable by now.
Not only does he score goals, but he unsettles defenders. Brown panicked in his presence, St Ledger wasn't much better. And Holt's been around long enough to know not just how to get his own way, but also to pick up a few little tricks. Like an incident a few minutes before the final whistle when he chased a ball into the corner in front of the City fans. The ball ran away from him and he tapped it out of play. A ballboy quickly gave another ball to the Preston 'keeper to help get them back up the other end as soon as possible. Lonergan placed the ball and then took a few steps back for his kicking run-up. Holt could see what was happening and, having gathered the original ball, simply – and oh so innocently – kicked it back into the penalty area. A nice, helpful quick return of the match ball. Which left two balls on the pitch, forced Lonergan to retrace his steps and gave City that extra few seconds to organise themselves.
It was simple, but it was smart.
The fact was, though, that City cruised to the finish line in impressive style. Like a finely-tuned engine, all parts are working in unison. The back four had its moments, but grew better as the game went on, the full-backs were certainly well-equipped to bomb on and support attacks, and Crofts marshalls a three-man midfield that is strong in the tackle, rarely loses possession, and knows the instant when play is switched. Smith is the junior partner, but you wouldn't know it, while Simon Lappin was the perfect man for the left side of midfield.
Paul Lambert had dropped him for Anthony McNamee for the midweek trip to Doncaster, but it didn't quite work out. While McNamee is the possessor of some nifty footwork, Lappin is more industrious, without simply being a workhorse. He defends well – witness the bone-crunching but fair coming together with Keith Treacey in the first half which left the Preston man watching the second half from the stands. His corners are good, his inter-play with Hoolahan and Drury down the left, where City did most of their best work, was top drawer.
It does help everyone when the playmaker, the man entrusted with the bulk of the responsibility for making things happen, does his fair share as well, and Hoolahan is doing that. And more. It's been clear that he has worked on the defensive side of his game, but he surely has never made more successful challenges than he did on Saturday. Combine that work-rate, that tackling and tracking back, with his undoubted creative abilities and he is pulling more strings than the puppet man.
Lambert tells us to keep our feet on the ground, but it's hard after watching a commanding performance which was maybe even better than what was produced at Nottingham Forest three weeks earlier. Granted, Preston are poor, but they should have been fighting like a cornered dog. Instead, they went down with barely a whimper.
While they languish second from bottom, City are fourth. No one's making any predictions, because that simply tempts fate, and who'd want to be blamed for upsetting the Norwich City apple cart just for the sake of a headline?