I've taken some deep breaths, allowed a moment to reflect and treated myself to a replay of the home win against Derby from last season (always brings a smile). I've reminded myself that we're a (twice) newly promoted team on the crest of one of English league football's most impressive stories and I still can't stop my blood from boiling.
It's okay to lose a game. It's one game out of 38 on the back of a six game unbeaten streak, which included a 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea; the second largest bank balance in the country.
In addition, Sunderland deserve credit. They've been unrecognizably transformed from the team we dismantled back in late September, championed by ex-Norwich Player of the Season Steve Bruce. Sunderland's New Manager, ex-Norwich manager (albeit for 20 games) Martin O'Neill, has given them belief, a revitalized work ethic, creativity and huge amounts of defensive pressure.
Nevertheless, the fact stands; we've let ourselves down today in a massive way and while I'm happy to celebrate as we continue this meteoric climb to Premier League safety, there are lessons to be learned from today's indistinguishable contribution by both players and coaching staff.
Sunderland were prepared for the diamond midfield. While Crofts and Surman on the outsides of the diamond were tucking in, Sunderland were pulling as wide as they could to expose the space left by Norwich’s narrow formation.
For the opening goal, James McClean put the ball over Russell Martin’s head before laying it off to Frazier Campbell for an absolutely sensational lob. Martin had another poor game, reinforcing my hopes for a speedy return to action for Marc Tierney and then Kyle Naughton resorting to right back.
Next, Campbell turned provider. Catching Norwich with an electric counter attack, Stephane Sessegnon powered forward, nut-megged the unusually sloppy Bradley Johnson before playing the ball out wide right to Campbell who found himself in acres of space with time to perfectly place the ball in the middle of the Norwich penalty box. Sessegnon was wide open and nodded the ball back across goal with power and accuracy. John Ruddy yelled. Ayala and Whitbread hung their heads. We looked silly.
Last, but by no means least, was the third goal, the own goal. The patient build-up came down the Sunderland right flank. Tthis time it was the fullback Phillip Bardsley who bombed past Kyle Naughton on the overlap and fed a ball across the face of goal which Ayala, couldn’t wait to poke past a stranded John Ruddy, in off the underside of the crossbar.
It wasn't much more than Sunderland deserved and was the nail in the coffin of one of Norwich’s poorest performances in years.
Paul Lambert has made poor choices in the past, very few but we’ve seen him start with formations which clearly didn't work, often involving three centre backs. The difference was that in the past, he’s typically been quick to change things up. It wasn’t until the 62nd minute, eight minutes after the third Sunderland goal, that Lambert opted to make the changes we’d been hoping for.
Bennett and Pilkington came on for Johnson and the entirely muted and thoroughly unimpressive Wes Hoolahan. With the exception of a well worked cross which Steve Morison barely headed past the far post, nothing dramatically changed. While I’m still completely convinced that Lambert is a football management genius, I wonder if he now wishes that he had started with the wingers who finished the match…because I do!
What was most concerning to me was the lack of quality. Yes, the conditions were poor and yes the playing surface was an embarrassment to the league, but we looked like half the team we’ve been in recent weeks. We failed to possess the ball, we played inaccurate long passes, we lost almost every 50:50 challenge and we failed to get our shots on goal. All of these things are entirely out of character.
Undoubtedly, we’ll bounce back on Saturday with a professional performance against Bolton, because that’s what Lambert and his staff have instilled in the squad. We don’t play poorly in back-to-back matches and that’s a massive credit to the work that is being done behind the scenes, in no small part by Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa. In the past, problems have been quickly fixed at the Colney training facility and they’ll need to be again in order to avoid City becoming the Blackpool of 2012.