Paddy Davitt verdict: Silence of the Rams for Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Alex Neil and his squad still have plenty of making up to do with Norwich City fans but this was a positive first therapy session of 2017.
The Canaries roused themselves to inflict the heaviest Championship defeat of the season on a Derby County side who arrived at Carrow Road unbeaten in 10.
Norwich, in contrast, had mastered losing games by all manner of means. Complacency, arrogance, poor defending, poor finishing, questionable selections and set-ups. The whole depressing spectrum of failure had been routinely visited since the highest watermark of a season that held so much promise and can realistically still lurch in contrasting directions.
Norwich proved against the Rams what all who rally to the cause knew before a ball was kicked at Blackburn. This squad is good enough to be in the promotion mix. Whether they can emulate the stellar achievement engineered by Neil when he first arrived from Hamilton was open for debate in the wake of relegation. But there was no question they deserved a seat at the promotion table. The unrelenting nature of the decline since Neil was named September's manager-of-the-month rendered any talk of a Premier League return at the first attempt frankly redundant. Yet, they head for home five points outside the play-off places and buoyed by a first win over one of their direct rivals.
But the emphatic nature of the final outcome at Carrow Road should not mask the adversity that had to be overcome in the early sparring.
Norwich's management, players and fans have suffered a collective pummelling that leaves residual scars. Such fragility was evident in a hesitant start where every wayward pass and fitful move only increased the anxiety inside the stadium. The silence was suffocating, replaced only by a rising frustration. It needed a spark. It needed a moment of inspiration and Nelson Oliveira delivered. His recent substitution in that pre-Christmas grind against Huddersfield triggered the first mass vocal protest towards Neil, which was repeated at Reading on Boxing Day.
Oliveira is rapidly assuming cult status for his endeavour and unerring ability to produce magic from long range. The opening salvo flashed past Scott Carson was the instinctive finish of a quality operator. Just like the tremor he unleashed at Barnsley or the swinging shot bent back inside the far post to sink Aston Villa. But the first of his hat-trick against the Rams was arguably the most important. It was a mood-changer, a stress reliever. It injected renewed belief and cooled Derby's ardour.
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Neil's side could and should have been out of sight by the interval. Carson foiled Jacob Murphy, Steven Naismith and Martin Olsson before Alex Tettey unleashed a shot that slammed a post. Oliveira clipped the woodwork on the restart but against such a pessimistic backdrop Norwich craved extra insurance.
Jacob Butterfield dutifully obliged when he was dismissed for a ridiculously abrasive challenge on Wes Hoolahan in the middle of the pitch. Hoolahan had blocked Butterfield's path to the Norwich first team when both were fighting the same fight. Hoolahan may have to ration the magic as he reaches the twilight of his club career but he was still the most creative force on the pitch. Oliveira deserved top billing but Hoolahan was a worthy support act.
Victory was assured when City's number nine glanced home Jonny Howson's flick before a thumping half-volley beat Carson. Carrow Road rose to acclaim Oliveira when he was replaced by Jerome.
The home fans had found their voice. So too the players. Neil reiterated after a Brentford draw that drew the curtain on a wretched 2016 they must do their talking on the pitch. This was a statement of intent; a clear, concise message, but the questions will linger until they can prove they have the staying power and the consistency.