Portsmouth 0 Norwich City 1: Timing is everything
In football, as in comedy, timing is everything. Norwich City are delivering their punchline with impeccable timing, but that is not to suggest that they have hit any unusually rich vein of form in recent weeks. This has been coming all season. Consistency has been a trademark of Norwich’s first campaign back in the Championship. In August, they will return at last to the Premier League.
The timing that has seen Norwich elevated into the top flight is more to do with confidence – at such a nail-biting time of the season, lesser sides would crumble. Indeed, lesser sides have crumbled. Norwich have stuck to their guns, continued to play attractive, attacking football while maintaining a formidable work ethic and a solid defensive base. They now reap their rewards for retaining the air of assurance fostered during a dominant League One campaign.
Timing has also played a part in the form of Simeon Jackson, signed from Gillingham in the summer following their relegation to League Two. Jackson has played second fiddle to Grant Holt for the majority of the season in terms of being Norwich’s foremost attacking threat, but it could be argued that they have swapped roles in the past month or so. When Norwich need a goal, they now turn to Jackson.
They turned to him last weekend in the 95th minute and he pounced to secure a dramatic 3-2 victory over Derby County and keep the Canaries in the box seat going into the last two games. After Cardiff’s meek surrender at home to Middlesbrough earlier in the evening and Portsmouth’s stubborn resistance until the hour mark, Norwich needed Jackson again.
And again, timing. Lingering off the shoulder of the last defender, Jackson made his burst at the right time and met David Fox’s superb cross with a header that beat Jamie Ashdown at the near post. All played out, inevitably, right under the noses of the expectant travelling support from East Anglia.
It was an away end that received taunts from their hosts as they waited nervously to see if their side could hold onto a precious advantage. Portsmouth admittedly looked more dangerous after Jackson’s strike, but Norwich still looked largely comfortable at the back. Counter-attacking with menace, keeping the ball with authority and bringing the excellent Arsenal loanee Henri Lansbury from the bench in a familiar move, Paul Lambert was quietly engineering another important triumph.
Jackson was central to the threat Norwich continued to offer whenever Portsmouth piled forward, buzzing around the backline and attempting to work the left channel busily. It seems that the Canadian has been in the English game for a long time, despite only having turned 24 last month. In fact, he joined Rushden and Diamonds in 2004 following a spell in Dulwich Hamlet’s youth team. After 75 league goals for Diamonds and then, following a £150,000 move, Gillingham, Jackson made the move to Carrow Road and placed his career in the trust of Lambert.
Many others have done the same – Andrew Surman will return to the Premier League following a failed attempt to establish himself in the top flight with Wolverhampton Wanderers; the Cambridgeshire-born John Ruddy, if still first choice between the sticks, will head back to Goodison Park after being allowed to leave Everton last summer; Holt and the scheming Wes Hoolahan will travel to fulfil league fixtures at Old Trafford and Anfield for the first time.
Many neutrals and supporters of Premier League teams may see Holt’s 22 goals this season and perhaps draw the assumption that Norwich rely on him, or maybe that their team is built around the former Nottingham Forest and Shrewsbury Town striker. This is not the reality that most Championship fans have discovered this season. Norwich play great football and may well entertain to the same degree as Blackpool have in the current Premier League campaign.
All credit to a team that have gone against the grain, the first club to gain two successive automatic promotions into the top flight since Sheffield United in 1990. Manchester City famously achieved two promotions in a row but the first of those was gained through the play-offs. Norwich haven’t needed a single semi-final in the last two years.
Only Neil Warnock’s superb Queen’s Park Rangers side have denied them a second league title in two years. They may even get their hands on the Championship trophy depending on the outcome of QPR’s inquiry. Norwich fans won’t care about that. Norwich City are back in the Premier League.