What is it about these teams producing breathless recent encounters? Andrew Lawn looks back on a captivating Valentines evening at the Carra. Russell Martin star performer you say?
Random star performer
Cameron Jerome was unstoppable in the first 45. Jonny was Jonny and Wes was Wes. Sponsors MoM, Alex Tettey looked like he was getting back to top form and John Ruddy made some exceptional saves, but I’m giving it to Russell Martin.
Now bear with me here. The first 20 minutes were shocking from the skipper. More a successful audition for Bambi on ice, than Championship centre half. Mitrovic was bullying him and it looked like Newcastle would score every time the ball came near our box.
Russ recovered. Lesser players, a fair few of whom have worn green and yellow in recent months, would have folded under the weight of a shoddy opening and an audibly nervous crowd every time the ball went near him, but Russ stood up to it. One thumping full volley clearance restored some belief in the Skip and from there out he was imperious, as Newcastle chucked the kitchen sink at us. Was he the best player on the pitch? No. But he showed a strength of character way above our pre-Christmas levels which will be needed on the home straight.
Moment of the match
Karl Darlow pre-apologising as Cameron Jerome pre-celebrated is up there, but one moment will live long in the memory for me and has cemented a reputation. Mitchell Dijks swatting Matt Ritchie like a fly, for the second time in 5 minutes, mid-rampaging run that was only halted by Jack Colback’s elbow.
Dijks looks every bit your Championship full-back, monstrously big and strong, quick and willing to mix it, with the occasional defensive lapse just around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, the lad is an excellent addition, but like Pinto is not the finished article. He’s a good solid base to build on though.
Excellent. Everything you would want from a home crowd. The early goal visibly rocked players and fans alike, but as one we dusted ourselves off and went again. Renditions of “We are the Norwich, Yellow Army” and “On the Ball City” were picked up by people in every stand and the vocal travelling support were quickly drowned out.
When the going got tough in the second half, the crowd stuck with the team, recognising we were up against a very talented Newcastle side. Frustration didn’t build as we went from counter-attacking to the ‘anywhere will do’ school of defending, which was lovely.
The masses wanted Shelvey sent off and just for daring to look at Wes they may have a point, but Andy Madley appeared to get it right. Contact looked minimal at first glance and you have to say the ref took his time, fully involving his assistant in making his decision. He also then took the time to speak to both Russ and Wes, explaining his decision which took lots of the heat out of the situation. It might not have been the decision we wanted through yellow tinted specs, but you have to admire the thought process that went into it.
There was also a fairly strong Newcastle shout for a penalty as the first half wore down and Dijks, shall we say ‘nudged’, Ritchie in the area. It would have been soft, but had it been Lascelles on Wes, I’d have been screaming for it.
Biggest positive to take
Our character and willingness to dig in and fight looks to be back from its autumn hibernation. Having been at Brighton where many of these players visibly downed tools at 3-0, last night, led by Russ, when the going got tough they dug in.
We have also been much more clinical recently. How often last season and earlier this, have we complained that we’ve dominated a game and made lots of chances only to fluff our lines and then concede a silly goal to snatch defeats from the jaws of victory? Not so recently, a flurry of goals against Forest and then 2 goals from 3 shots on target last night shows a ruthlessness that’s been lacking.
A point against the league leaders is no disaster and while we may have lost ground on the top 6 in the short-term, we are still well placed for an assault on the play-offs.
Two defensive lapses, led to two soft goals, but in a performance high on effort, endeavour and played at a scintillating tempo, I can excuse those in exchange for the return of a team we can believe in.
It wasn’t perfect (quick free-kicks when 2-1 up a couple of minutes before half-time for example) but we do appear to be learning how to take the sting out of a game, which will be vital in the run-in. That said, we still make silly and wholly avoidable errors. Their equaliser came from Dijks handing the ball back to Yedlin, allowing him to take a quick throw with Mitchell still off the pitch. That in turn led to Pritchard giving away an obvious, but soft free-kick on the edge of our box, which then led to their goal. Wholly avoidable.
One loss in 9 league games means we can definitely say we’ve turned the bloody proverbial corner now. None of this “maybe” nonsense.
We may not have held on to the win, but we didn’t lose and have maintained a momentum which is vital as winter turns to spring. One of Leeds, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday will fall away and we still have all 3 to play.
Most importantly of all, Alex Neil appears to have rediscovered his old bullishness and players are again willing to run through walls (or Matt Ritchie) for him.
The season starts here.