Time proves a great healer

STEVE GEDGE How likely was it to think barely four weeks ago that Norwich might reach the first international break standing second or third in the table?


How likely was it to think barely four weeks ago that Norwich might reach the first international break standing second or third in the table?

About as likely as Malky Mackay having made his Premiership debut by then or yet another Premiership boss deciding to pass on the chance of signing Nicolas Anelka, frankly.

And yet the Canaries' lofty position is thoroughly deserved, since this past week has been as far removed as possible compared to relevant events of last season.

A year ago the Canaries stumbled and stuttered their way to a Carling Cup first-round victory at MK Dons, before later on, when facing a decidedly average set of League One play-off winners, managing to contrive to lose not only at home to Sheffield Wednesday but also away.

This time around a weakened City line-up sees off Torquay with little in the way of fuss and bother and three days later Barnsley are ruthlessly demolished.

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Some moments of Saturday's throughly enjoyable match, such as the slick inter-play between Darren Huckerby and Lee Croft for the third goal, harked back to the confident, cavalier days of the Division One title-winning campaign, it was that good.

And you have to ask yourself, just how has this transformation come about?

As the increasingly turgid nine months that was last season slowly ran out of life, like an exhausted marathon runner just managing to stagger across the finishing line, even the most loyal of City fans could not have envisaged just how different things would be when the new campaign got under way.

Rather than a disparate bunch of misfits low on confidence and with newcomers who played as if they should have been acquired as the bonus part of a buy one, get one free offer but actually you were left with the lingering doubt that their former clubs had seen Nigel Worthington coming, all of a sudden City look like a focused operation that means business.

True, there's still the major concern that, scratch just below the surface and City are desperately short of cover and quality once you look beyond the starting line-up. However, you would sincerely hope that the squad is strengthened before midnight on Thursday because emergency loans can only go so far in the bid for a top-six slot.

Okay, we've yet to see what the new-look formation can achieve away from home. But come anywhere close to matching Carrow Road form on their travels, stay as injury- and suspension-free as possible and on the evidence of the Preston, Luton and Barnsley games you have to say that, at the very least, City's season won't come to an end at Sheffield Wednesday on May 6.

And as good as the promise Croft is showing is, it can't just be the arrival of the Canaries' new No 7 that is behind their revival. Increasingly, the name on fans' lips is Martin Hunter. He might maintain a low profile, but his arrival is the spark that has relit the flame of City's ambitions.

If you could find any cause for complaint on Saturday it would be that the Canaries sat back a bit at the end of each half. First time around it actually worked to their advantage because you sense that if Barnsley hadn't pulled one back City might have been happy to see out much of the second 45 minutes on the back of a safe, two-goal cushion.

And, frankly, the final 20 minutes tailed off a bit when perhaps fans were expecting more goals. Craig Fleming came on for his win bonus, and that was about it, frankly.

But when compared with the depths plumbed last season you'd have taken half of the fare on offer on Saturday and been well satisfied.

Coincidentally, the last time City hit six in a game was against Torquay 11 years ago.

Now, they were unlikely to have matched that last Wednesday night, but what we did get was a thoroughly assured victory, in stark contrast to the comedy of errors that was the visit to the National Hockey Stadium 12 months ago.

True, the Canaries also won away against pretty average lower-league fare, keeping a clean sheet, but by the time of McKenzie's last-gasp winner, MK Dons had had enough chances to wrap up victory, not least missing an extra-time penalty.

Torquay were perhaps the poorest side City have faced during the Worthington years, and that includes Dagenham & Redbridge, but they still had to be beaten, and they were, quite clinically.

But perhaps the most heartening sight of the night was seeing the City boss bawling out instruuctions from the dug-out which suggested not only that he wanted a lot, lot more from some elements of his side, but also that he was actually taking the whole exercise as seriously as any league match.

See off Rotherham in the same fashion and then draw a middling Premiership side at home, rather than be sent to Birmingham or Newcastle, and the Carling Cup could be a real blessing for City this season.

Entertaining football and a cup run? It doesn't get much better than that...