When I was 16 years old, my mate, Big Aza, asked me to go along with him to play for his Sunday league team, The Unicorns. They were down a man and had "a massive cup game" against The Norwich Busmen. It's the kind of big match that every young lad dreams of.
The game kicked-off 15 minutes late because Jason, our 40-year-old rotund super striker, had been out with the lads the night before and had to remember where he'd left his car before he could drive to the remote Norfolk field where we were waiting.
At half time, as I stretched and took on plenty of water, I watched as my new team-mates prepared for the second half; some got into their Vauxhall Novas and turned the heat on to get warm, whilst others frantically lit cigarettes to help recover from the previous 45 minutes they'd had to endure without nicotine.
While it might be a stretch to compare Norwich's away game at Stoke to the Unicorn's high profile clash with the Norwich Busmen, there were some tragic similarities in the quality of football. Maybe we've just become accustomed in recent months to seeing Norwich involved in high intensity matches with somewhat attractive, flowing football. Saturday was not one of them.
At home to Manchester United a week ago, there were times that Norwich were allowed to get the ball down, pass it around and, consequently, we created chance after chance. A team like United is happy to let you have the ball at times, has the strength of character to soak up your pressure and punish you when you least expect it. The game at Stoke was a different beast.
Stoke have a strong physical presence and have built a Premier League foundation on high pressure all over the field, beautifully accented by relentless long passes/kicks. To their credit, it works. They’re an established Premier League team with a decent manager who has taught his team how to fight for possession of the ball. Mid-table security is all but guaranteed for them once again and deservedly so. Very few teams will frustrate Norwich and stop them from passing the ball like Stoke did at the weekend.
We should forget the contention surrounding referee, Michael Oliver’s, change in heart. No point crying over spilt milk...however, if I were to weep over dairy, it would sound something like, “OI OLIVER, MAKE UP YOUR MIND!” First, he called the throw-in correctly, then the linesman called it incorrectly and then Oliver changed his mind to agree with his linesman. While the linesman made a mistake and Oliver made the mistake of listening to him, the more important mistake was that of the Norwich defence, spearheaded on this occasion by Elliott Ward. I had flashbacks of City’s first dozen games of the season, which yielded a catalogue of similarly wretched defensive blunders. Ward lunged as Matthew Etherington lifted the ball past him and smashed it authoritatively into the far side netting. We probably deserved to lose the game on the overall balance of play, but we would have taken a point if it weren’t for that single defensive lapse. Costly, Elliott Ward. Very expensive indeed.
Not a lot of value in “If only” at this point and I’ll be the last man to criticize Paul Lambert, but we’ve got to take something from the game. So here it is - we missed David Fox and Wes Hoolahan. The game was crying out for quality distribution, particularly in the final third. Meanwhile, our two best passers of the ball were on the bench for most of the match; Fox getting a measly 11 minutes and Hoolahan not even emerging. Fox in particular was missed, as the player who typically takes free-kicks and corners from the left side. Our set pieces, which have been good this season, were inaccurate and inconsistent in a game where we needed to scrape a goal. Particularly towards the end of the match, with Aaron Wilbraham and Grant Holt up top, we should have been feeding them the ball with better accuracy.
Other questions could be asked, such as the preference of Aaron Wilbraham over 9-goal-Morison, but I think we will have to give the credit to the home team. Stoke (with the second least amount of goals scored in the league), contained Norwich (the sixth highest scoring Premier League team), for most of the match in a way that nearly all of “top teams” have been unable to.
We’ll need to recover drastically and quickly. I would have expected a point from Saturday’s game. The loss dragged us three positions deeper into eleventh in the table. It’s not so much a question of safety. We need five more points before the end of the season to stay up. I’m certain we can manage that, but it’s more to do with earning the league position that we deserve for an excellent effort, so far. And forget ye not; at £750,000 per league position, single defensive errors can be costly. Very expensive indeed!