Easy to keep calm about Norwich City’s FA Cup upset
NORWICH CITY 0, LEYTON ORIENT 1: There's a dangerous trap to fall into here, so let's start by saying that Leyton Orient were worthy winners of this game.
It would clearly be a matter of some disrespect if that wasn't noted and we simply dived straight into the reasons why it isn't the biggest disaster that has befallen Norwich City.
Orient came with a plan, stuck to it and, courtesy of Jimmy Smith's 20th-minute header – a rarity for him anywhere, let alone at Carrow Road given the lack of luck he had during a loan spell here in the first half of the 2007-08 season – they had something to hang on to. They did so admirably against a City side which ran out of ideas.
In his post-match summary Paul Lambert expressed his disappointment, but was quick to point out that he could see the bigger picture. There was no attempt to hide it either: the league is the priority, as it should be for any team, but especially one that sits third in the table and could overtake Cardiff City if they beat them at Carrow Road next weekend.
City do still have an interest in the Cup, but only because of a handful of those who live to fight another day –Championship leaders Queens Park Rangers, Cardiff, Swansea, Leeds, Watford, Nottingham Forest and Reading.
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QPR were beaten at Blackburn, they lost Jamie Mackie to a serious injury and such was the depleted state of their squad that manager Neil Warnock admitted to being pleased when they missed a late equaliser. Cardiff drew at Stoke so face a replay; Swansea thumped Colchester and now face Orient, which will keep them busy for another day. Watford are through, Forest are through and Reading are through.
Forget Leeds? Of course not: they did well to get a draw at Arsenal, but face a replay, with a home draw against local rivals Huddersfield the prize. Leeds' cup fortunes are relevant given what happened last season when they knocked out Manchester United on the way to the fourth round, when they lost to Spurs.
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Those distractions cost them valuable points in a league they once looked like running away with, which helped Norwich to overtake them – finally joining the Canaries in the Championship after securing second place by a point.
Leeds played 13 cup games in three competitions last season, City played eight. Does it make a difference? If your squad has suffered injuries like City's has this season, a Tuesday night replay might be the last thing Lambert wants.
The phrase 'In Lambert We Trust' pops up at regular intervals and while the events of recent days could have unsettled a squad which has worked wonders under his tutelage, the fact that both he and the club –and therefore the fans too – have shown unity in their rejection of Burnley's advances may prove another galvanising factor. There's not a lot wrong with 'all for one, one for all' – Manchester United have used it to great effect for years.
It's not often a Norwich City manager is a wanted man either, unless it's the local lynch mob after his neck. Sheffield Wednesday provided a regular sideshow when their former player Nigel Worthington was in charge here, but interest in City managers has waned in direct correlation with the club's position in the leagues.
Maybe the last manager to be wanted to a similar degree was, coincidentally, the man Lambert looks up to, Martin O'Neill, who took just a week to find a new job, with Leicester, after walking out of Carrow Road. Mike Walker's first spell ended in 1994 when he quit to join Everton.
Anyway, I digress: in Lambert we trust and all that – which is why when he made changes to his starting line-up for Saturday, you still felt there was a more than decent chance of City ending their miserable recent FA Cup form.
He made six changes from the team that drew at Middlesbrough a week ago – goalkeeper John Ruddy, central defender Michael Nelson, midfielders Andrew Crofts and Simon Lappin and striker Grant Holt were all on the bench, with Owain Tudur Jones cup-tied. But anyone who suggests it was a team of fringe players needs to look a little more closely – only Declan Rudd and Anthony McNamee could be considered in that light, possibly Zak Whitbread too, although it's a little difficult to slot his round peg into a square hole given his absence through injury and his undoubted class. This was a strong enough team to beat Orient.
It had looked that way in the early moments, Chris Martin turning in a low cross which got caught under defender Ben Chorley's feet only for keeper Jamie Jones to grab the ball on the line.
Smith got a sight of goal when he turned well in the City area and forced Rudd to get down to his right to collect – at the second attempt – but was bang on the money when he met Dean Cox's cross after a short corner on the left and thumped home a header that the keeper had no chance with. Another goal after a corner – it's in danger of becoming repetitive.
City had shouts for handball when left-back Charlie Daniels appeared to handball Wes Hoolahan's low cross, before the Irishman stung Jones' fingers with a low shot. But City were too fussy, too deliberate, too often trying to play like Arsenal and coming up short.
City's best spell came in the second half when they camped on the edge of the Orient area. McNamee, by now long switched to the right flank, was swinging in some wicked crosses, but for every good one there was another that sailed out of the striker's air space.
Chris Martin was out of sorts, as was Aaron Wilbraham, and when Holt arrived on the scene with around a third of the game to go, it didn't spark the change that many expected, perhaps because centre-halves Chorley and Terrell Forbes were magnificent.
As the match went into time added on, Orient boss Russell Slade was thumping his heart in a gesture to owner Barry Hearn in the directors' box – when McNamee unleashed a shot that Jones had to turn away for a corner, it's a wonder he didn't ask for an oxygen tank.
No one – apart from City's banker perhaps – was anything more than disappointed after the game, but there could be plenty of time to make amends between now and early May.