Whitbread returns to winning ways for Norwich City
Defender Zak Whitbread stayed up just long enough to see in the New Year – before helping Norwich City up to third place in the Championship with victory over the leaders.
The 26-year-old centre-back completed only his second full 90 minutes in 12 months with the Canaries as they beat Queens Park Rangers 1-0 in front of a near full house at Carrow Road.
Whitbread was preferred to Jens Berthel Askou for a place in the back four alongside Michael Nelson as Paul Lambert's men chalked up their fifth win in six games, and their first clean sheet in 11 matches.
It was his first complete senior match since City's 2-1 victory over Stockport last Easter Monday – and one has to go back to May 2009 for the previous full outing in the League One play-off final for Millwall against Scunthorpe.
'It's my second 90 minutes in 20 months so I'm happy to have got through it. It was nice to start and get the result, which is the main thing,' said Whitbread.
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'I think the lads worked really hard and it was a team effort. They're top of the league and we're up there challenging so to come away with three points and a clean sheet the lads are delighted.
'A clean sheet is a nice bonus as a defender or a goalkeeper.'
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After a wretched 2010 that brought him one start and four brief substitute appearances for City – one of which was in the 4-2 home win over Sheffield United last Tuesday – Whitbread saw out the old year quietly in the hope he may be called upon the next day.
He said: 'We did a bit of shape on Friday and were going through a few things in training, so I had an idea I might play but it's not concrete. We get told before the game but I just prepare for every game as if I am going to play, so nothing changed. I did everything the way I normally do – a quiet night in on Friday and bed at five past twelve after all the celebrations.'
After five months out with calf and hamstring trouble, Whitbread hopes 2011 will see him playing regular first team football.
'I'm fine now,' he said. 'There are no problems whatever. I have worked hard the past few weeks to get somewhere near a decent level of fitness. It's just a case of getting minutes under my belt in games and then I hope I'll be able to show a little bit more of what I think I'm capable of.'
When everyone is fit and available, there are five central defenders vying for two places at Carrow Road. Leon Barnett completed a two-match ban on Saturday and is available for the trip to Middlesbrough, while Elliott Ward is currently sidelined by a calf injury.
Whitbread, who will be 27 next Saturday when City entertain Leyton Orient in the FA Cup third round, relishes the competition, however.
He said: 'It shows the quality of Norwich City if there are good players competing for places. Wardy, Barney, Nels, Jens – everyone has done a great job when called upon so that will bring the best out of all of us. We're all working as hard as we can and at the end of the day, whoever gets picked, we're right behind them as a team. It's good competition to have, it kicks you on and gives you that extra boost and that extra yard.'
Full-back Russell Martin's third goal of the season, coming after just nine minutes, was enough to beat Rangers.
'It's a great habit for him to get into. He's up and down that right wing – he has some engine on him, great pace. And if he can keep chipping in with goals like that it's even better,' said Whitbread.
He and his team-mates will not be getting carried away at moving into third spot, one point behind second-placed Swansea with a game in hand.
'The gaffer and everyone else has set the aims, which are to stay in the division, and then once that's achieved we go from there,' he said.