When John Ruddy arrived from Everton for an undisclosed fee back in 2010, many Norwich fans (myself included) were still lamenting the failed attempts to retain Newcastle United’s backup keeper, Fraser Forster. The previous season, Forster had fallen one clean sheet short of equaling Norwich’s all time record number of clean sheets in a season and was runner-up for the Fan’s player of the year award. Ruddy seemed frustrated by the shadows he had walked into.
While Ruddy had done a fine job for Norwich last season in the Championship, the promotion saw Norwich reopen the Forster pursuit, leaving Ruddy’s position as City’s number one in question.
This weekend’s 1-1 home draw against Stoke saw Ruddy put in a performance that ranks as high as any of Fraser Forster’s. And he could be on the verge of silencing the ghost of goalkeepers past.
The team as a whole will be forgiven for feeling harshly treated by referee Neil Swarbrick. The penalty he awarded against Leon Barnett in the 64th minute for allegedly fouling Jon Walters on the edge of the box was, at least, highly questionable. Without hesitation, or consultation of the ironically titled “referee’s assistant”, Swarbrick pointed twice; once to the penalty spot and once to the dressing room, dismissing Barnett with a straight red card.
At a glance, I’ll concede, I wasn’t entirely certain at the time of the tackle, but the referee was perfectly positioned to see the incident, as was his assistant. Replays would confirm that the man with the whistle had made a howling error, much to the dismay of manager Paul Lambert.
Walters stepped up to take the kick himself in front of the Barclay end; a brave move. Queue Ruddy’s match day highlight. Low and hard to Ruddy’s left, Walters walloped the ball. Ruddy guessed correctly and got down superbly to keep the score at 1-0. The erratic and explosive fist-pumping celebration that followed, not entirely dissimilar to that of “Psycho” in Euro ’96, showed how much it meant to the City keeper.
But this was merely the icing on an excellent day for Ruddy, which began in the first half with a proficient save from Matt Etherington, who had strolled past city defender Kyle Naughton with alarming ease. A second half free-kick saw Etherington’s well-struck shot palmed over the bar spectacularly by Ruddy. All before a completely unexpected Ryan Shotton shot forced Ruddy into another magnificent save.
His performance was characteristic of City’s. A team line-up that saw six changes from last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Wigan had a couple of other noteworthy performances. Ritchie De Laet recovered from his opening day error by putting in another solid performance at the back and opening his account with a brilliant header. What was impressive was not the leap and accuracy of the goal, but the brilliant movement that earned the half yard he needed to get above the Stoke defenders.
Bradley Johnson showed why he deserved a starting position after being left out last weekend.
Excellent long and short passing, fierce in the tackle with powerful and accurate set pieces, one of which yielded the goal. While grant Holt, still without a Premier League goal, can feel much better about his contribution. Up against one of the strongest backlines in the league, he looked colossal and cunning. Holt forced Stoke centre halves Ryan Shawcross and Jonathan Woodgate into multiple fouls against him, often in dangerous positions. A good day’s work from “Captain Marvelous”, even without scoring or having many chances.
Brutally, we saw the team that came up with injury time goals on 12 occasions last season, served a healthy dose of their own medicine.
You could argue that five added minutes was a generous addition from the referee, that the penalty should not have been given, you could even argue that the red card was not the fair decision. What you can’t oppose is that, in a desperate attempt to defend the one goal lead against a strong Premier League team, City sat far too deep and got punished. A questionable 93rd minute leap by new signing Daniel Ayala allowed Kenwyne Jones to send the ball bouncing past Ruddy, into the bottom corner. It had been on the cards as Norwich scrapped, got sucked deeper and failed to keep possession.
Stoke had pressed well against Norwich’s 10 men and understandably, Tony Pulis felt they should have made more of their 15 chances.
It was excruciating to watch as Norwich tried to hold the ball against a physically strong Stoke team for so long after being reduced to 10 men. Maybe with 11 men it would have been an easier task, but we need to be able to hold the ball at times like this. Hopefully this is a lesson well-learned at the right end of the season.
Another impressive performance. Two games in and we’ve avoided being embarrassed and even avoided losing. With one of last season’s supposedly weaker Premier League teams (Wigan Athletic) and now a mid-table team (Stoke) out of the way, we can certainly compete at these levels. Now for the big boys; bring on Stamford Bridge.
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