Pleasure in the house of pain

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Carrow Road has long been the graveyard of ambition for Huddersfield Town. Supporters of all vintages will remember to the point of trauma thrashings at the hands of Norwich where their overwhelming superiority seemed inevitable with Town looking as if they had walked the interminable distance to Norfolk.

Those of us unfortunate to witness two visits within 6 months of each other in 1998, resulting in a 9-1 aggregate deficit, featuring Craig Bellamy torturing Jacko’s unfathomable decision to play a high defensive line to feed Iwan Roberts (there was an unusual streak of cruelty that year) can be forgiven our yellow tinged nightmares.

It can only be assumed that few made it in 1969 for the last victory. Dual carriageways in rural Eastern England were a far off dream back then, supporters living outside West Yorkshire were decidedly exotic or freaks and the Greaves revolution was still in its early stages.

Quite rightly, David Wagner has no interest in any of this (possibly like everyone else!); suggesting that the travails of previous teams could be visited upon the current one would undoubtedly be an insult to his intelligence and an assault on his forward looking philosophies. But he hasn’t had to witness it.

The first sign that the horrors of the past were not to be revisited was a tepid rendition of “On the Ball, City”, Norwich’s quaint anthem reputed to be the world’s oldest football chant. A full, confident and optimistic Carrow Road usually belts it out to inspire their team – just another aspect of our ritual humiliation – but this was flat.

The fear in the yellow hordes is palpable. They only have to look at the teams around them in the division, and even below, to see clubs of their size and status in otiose paralysis waiting for an Asian sugar daddy to transform their fortunes when they fail to regain admittance to the bloated league above.

The suspicion that their cheerless, dour manager was being tolerated for as long as results were acceptable are now being realised – despite an abundance of talent at his disposal, their usually vibrant identity is disappearing as function is preferred to flair. There is no other way to explain Wes Hoolihan’s banishment from their first XI.

For once, then, Town took to the Canaries’ field without the odds being stacked against them and, for the omen seekers amongst us, the victory at Newcastle followed a poor performance at a small ground and maybe the relief at playing in an infinitely better arena would inspire them back to such triumph.

Early signs were not good. Kasey Palmer was caught in possession almost immediately – the first and last mistake he would make all night and Lowe, who would also recover to have an outstanding game, was robbed of the ball by Murphy who fed Oliveira in the box only for the Portuguese to fire wide as Stankovic (a major selection surprise) slid in.

Within 5 minutes of this inauspicious start, Town took the lead and Norwich levelled in double quick time. The visitors goal owed everything to a fabulous turn, run and pass by the impressive Palmer, who found Tommy Smith in acres of space to cross for an easy Kachunga header from, admittedly, an offside position which was, luckily, hard to spot in the pace of the attack.

From the restart, Norwich raided down Town’s apparently abandoned right and Brady managed to loop over a cross before the ball went dead. Despite the lack of attention in the box, Howson did exceptionally well to generate power and accuracy from 12 yards with a header which just evaded Ward’s despairing dive.

A lesser team, and certainly the ones who have represented Town over the years at Norwich, would have crumbled in these circumstances. Instead, Town took control of the game in a half where their opponents were left chasing shadows out of possession and under constant and considerable pressure when they had it.

Mooy, Palmer and Hogg dominated their counterparts entirely and the mixture of calm keep ball and explosive bursts forward bemused the hosts in to hurried, error laden football to the increasing derision of the home support.

This was no better illustrated than a harassed Durrans spooning an attempted back pass in a despairing attempt to rid himself of the Palmer pest snapping at his heels. Wells was on to the error in a flash but his first time control took the ball slightly too wide and allowed Bennet and Bassong to combine and clear the danger.

Town’s command of the game grew with every minute and sporadic Norwich attacks were broken up effectively as the home side’s rhythm was constantly interrupted.

On 40 minutes, Town deservedly retook the lead when Kachunga and Smith combined again down the right and a simple ball inside was toe poked through Bassonga’s legs past Ruddy.

The move which lead to the goal contained 18 passes including a superb ball forward between the lines by Stankovic and emphasised the dominance enjoyed by the visitors in a first half – equaliser aside – of control, aggression and organisation which reduced the Canaries to a shambling mess.

Anticipating a home revival in the second half, Wagner changed tactics from expansive pressing to a defensive block, pulling the wide men deeper back and Palmer slightly advanced to try to capitalise on any over extension by Norwich.

With more of the ball, Norwich improved without adding a great deal of composure to their play, but it was Town who had the first chance of the second period when Smith and Kachunga combined yet again but for the German to screw his shot wide when a 3rd goal – its nearly Christmas and a 3rd goal in any game remains elusive – would have buried their fragile opponents.

Norwich’s best chance, by a distance, was of Town’s own making. A tiring Hogg tried to find Kachunga with a loose pass which was punted upfield towards Stankovic. With his inexperience on full display, the Serbian’s attempt at clearing the ball merely swished at the night air and Oliveira was in the clear with Ward in no man’s land. His lob, however, was misplaced and drifted wide and Town were let off the hook.

Ward, who had a good game and helped his defenders at set pieces more than is his custom with catches and punches, was called in to action on a couple of occasions to make reasonably routine saves, though he would have been beaten by a late Bassonga header had it been on target.

Town’s second half attacking was sporadic, though they may have been more incisive had Palmer not been hacked down on a few occasions when he had turned opposition players with space in front of him. A reasonable refereeing performance was a little tarnished by the leniency shown to some cynical Norwich tackling.

Infuriatingly, Wells was caught offside when a very promising break looked on and the frustrated striker was booked for putting the ball in the net long after play was halted.

With judicious substitutions – the more defensive Bunn replaced Van La Parra and Billings’ height was introduced for the exhausted Hogg – and dogged defending, Town held on for a great victory celebrated in normal fashion.

3 wins in 6 days, including at 2 very difficult venues, has reinvigorated a season which was in danger of losing momentum and Wagner is to be highly commended for sticking to his ideas and philosophies even when dips in the performances of some players had appeared to indicate some frailty.

With good displays all round, the maturity, energy and talent of Palmer shone through. While Mooy was a creditable choice for man of the match – his class graces virtually every game – the youngster from Chelsea gave a peerless performance embracing both the beauty of the game with his poise under pressure and ability to spin in to space and the ugly side of pressing opponents in to error.

It is also exciting to realise that this squad still has room for improvement. A good overall defensive display in the second half shouldn’t disguise the fact that we weren’t far from the thin dividing line between success and failure at times and the inability to kill off teams with a third goal (or more) is asking for trouble.

But a long overdue win at Carrow Road is no time for carping – it was a memorable night in a season of high achievement and great promise.

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