Hoolahan will not make that mistake again
NORWICH CITY 1, PRESTON NORTH END 1: Perhaps best for those who collect programmes and football memorabilia to keep a very tight hold on the reminders of this game – something happened which you won't see at Carrow Road for a long, long time.
For those who have managed to avoid the fall-out, it was Wes Hoolahan's penalty miss. Not just any old miss, but one of those 'wish the ground would open up and swallow me' misses.
With the score tied at one apiece after Grant Holt had levelled two minutes after Chris Brown's opener, Hoolahan had the best chance of the game to bury a battling Preston side for good. He stepped up and, at the moment of impact, threw us all a dummy; instead of placing it or smashing it, he tried to chip keeper Iain Turner right down the middle.
So weak was the effort that Turner, who hadn't exactly leapt full-length to his left, had time to readjust and catch the ball, leaving Hoolahan with head in hands, perhaps trying to hide the egg on his face.
It was a major league cock-up. He knew it, the crowd knew it, his team-mates knew it, his manager knew it. A collector's item from a man who rarely does much wrong. Perhaps best, then, to allow the folly of his decision to be debated to death now, and get on with the business of playing football.
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Paul Lambert was keen to emphasise the point that he can hardly publicly criticise a player who has done so much for him. Reading between the lines wasn't difficult: the manager doesn't want to see it again.
Why he did it is anyone's guess, although it was a carbon copy of a penalty against the same team while playing for their closest rivals, Blackpool, in December, 2007. That time it won his team the game. This time it didn't.
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While all who witnessed it will remember it for a long time, it shouldn't hide some of the conclusions to come out of the match, the most glaring of which was that City really do need to get in a second striker to support Grant Holt. Hoolahan has been used in the role for the last two games, but his licence to roam means he isn't a genuine strike partner. With him and four other midfielders who have goals in them, it means there is always a threat.
But having another goal scorer alongside Holt would make City a lot more dangerous, although how does Lambert manage to persuade a club to part with that sort of quality – and get the player's agreement as well?
Another conclusion is that City, far from ruing their luck in not beating the bottom side, can feel fortunate. Preston put up a fine showing considering the way their players were dropping likes flies, be it on their own training ground, where a gastric flu bug claimed two on Friday, or on the pitch, where Nathan Ellington turned an ankle and was hooked 40 minutes before kick-off and then watched three of his team-mates leave the game prematurely because of various knocks. Had they been at full strength they might have done better – other results on Saturday proved that teams without a promotion shout are no respecters of those who have.
Swansea and Nottingham Forest both lost 1-0 – at Scunthorpe and at home to Hull respectively – while tomorrow's opponents, Leicester, lost 1-0 at leaders QPR, who appear to be close to declaring independence at the top and allowing the rest to fight it out for the second automatic promotion place.
But one of the biggest helping hands came from Ipswich, who were surprise 2-0 winners at Cardiff, having acquired some temporary support from this part of the world, for 90 minutes at least. If you're feeling dirty, don't worry – it was all in a good cause.
It wasn't the best of days at the office, but City are just two points off second. Conversely, they could have been where Swansea currently sit, where it's even nicer and healthier.
They started like a train on Saturday, when an early goal might have sapped some of Preston's fragile confidence.
Hoolahan was set free by a Marc Tierney header and cut the ball back for Andrew Surman, whose effort was blocked by a combination of David Gray and the excellent Leon Cort.
Tierney showed his defensive attributes when he got across to the right-back spot to deny Barry Nicholson as Preston tried to break, but in the early stages it was one-way traffic.
Hoolahan shot wide by a yard and David Fox tried a few pot-shots. City were neat and tidy, threatening around the area if not inside it, but with a third of the game gone, Preston managed to weather the storm, such as it was. Eddie Johnson was a danger on the break, but the visitors weren't exactly buzzing around John Ruddy's penalty area.
Curious that in his post-match interview Phil Brown said his team, in danger of being cast adrift at the bottom of the table and in need of wins not draws, felt disappointed they hadn't got more from the game, considering they began wasting time before the half-time oranges had been sliced.
Preston's hopes took a knock when they lost Nicholson to injury before half-time, while City lost Zak Whitbread 10 minutes after the break after the centre-half landed awkwardly after an aerial challenge, handing a debut to Rob Edwards.
But the most telling change came when Chris Brown, who spent a year at City and had only one goal to show from it, came on for the ineffective Paul Hayes. In his first game against City, Brown had scored after two minutes – the same time he took to do it again. It was Brown who won the free-kick, referee Craig Pawson ruling that he'd been fouled by Elliott Ward as both men jumped for the ball, although the City man walked away with the bloody nose. Keith Treacy's free-kick hit the ball, but he spotted Brown lurking on the right in the area and lobbed it his way. Brown controlled it with his chest, despite claims of handball, and hammered it over Ruddy from the corner of the six-yard box.
The lead lasted two minutes, with Fox and Surman exchanging passes, Surman shooting with the outside of his left foot and Holt knocking the ball home after Turner couldn't keep hold of it.
Hume saw a cross come back off the bar, but Preston's hope look to have been extinguished when Darren Carter was penalised for handling Russell Martin's hooked effort.
The rest is history – Hoolahan did have a chance to redeem himself, but Turner saved while Ward did brilliantly to block a Sean St Ledger effort after a corner. One more real chance came City's way in time added on, but Aaron Wilbraham volleyed into the side-netting.
The bitter twist was that Hoolahan was named man of the match by the sponsors: he didn't appear for the usual pitch-side presentation. It was a bad day at the office for one of the fans' real favourites. There won't be many others.