Michael Bailey: The run-in's key men for Norwich City and their Championship promotion rivals
It doesn't sound many - but anyone can become a promotion hero in just eight games. Michael Bailey looks at what the Championship run-in has in store for Norwich City and their 10 fellow promotion condenters.
The season was 38 games into its flow. Everyone knew inside out those who had played a key role in getting Norwich City to the point of being considered serious Championship promotion contenders. Everyone else was labelled as a useful bit-part.
That included the striker with four goals from his 32 appearances, the last coming in mid-October.
The striker on a 20-game goal drought, just eight games before the season was done.
And the striker who on his next outing come early April, rattled in a 15-minute hat-trick – after coming on with only 20 minutes to go, in City’s Carrow Road visit from relegation-certainties Scunthorpe United.
The season was 2010-11. Stunning back-to-back promotions plus a remarkable Premier League return were won – and Simeon Jackson helped make it happen with nine goals in those final eight games. His second hat-trick earned an iconic injury-time home win over Derby, before a diving header at Portsmouth just a few days later sealed the deal.
The Canadian striker’s star not only burned bright and fast; it burned brightest and fastest. His name scorched in City folklore.
So here we are, eight years later and once again eight games left.
Who is going to be key to both Norwich City and the 10 teams behind them, battling for either automatic promotion or a successful play-off journey via an ultra-competitive run-in?
Well if I knew that, football would be a far more predictable and a whole lot less fun – but let’s look over some crucial figures at the clubs involved anyway...
• Nottingham Forest > 11th: Played 38 – 54pts
When Joe Lolley has been good this season, Forest have followed. Their run of one defeat in 14 through autumn saw the former Huddersfield winger notch five goals and seven assists – that sole defeat was at home to Norwich.
The 26-year-old hasn’t hit the same heights since Martin O’Neill took over from Aitor Karanka, but he is still playing almost every minute and has a goal and an assist from his last two games – after notching only one of each in his previous 16.
So if Lolley is firing once again, Forest may do likewise.
• Sheffield Wednesday > 10th: P38 – 55pts
In terms of a match-winner, few can rival Adam Reach – but it’s behind him you may find Wednesday’s star man over the run-in.
Absent as financial fair play issues and former boss Jos Luhukay freezing out one of the best keepers in the Championship, Wednesday’s improvement since Keiren Westwood’s recall has been stark: 14 games, seven wins, one defeat, 27 points, nine clean sheets and just eight goals conceded.
Remember, this is the same side City blitzed 4-0 at Hillsborough in November.
Steve Bruce has worked some early magic and if the trend continues, Westwood may prove the foundation of dramatic play-off push. They head to Carrow Road on Good Friday.
• Bristol City > 9th: P36 – 55pts
At 23 and having caught the eye, Callum O’Dowda is the kind of player who will need to come good if Lee Johnson’s side are to avoid repeating their post-Christmas slump of last season.
The winger’s attitude will also speak volumes: young, hugely talented and now only a year’s option away from leaving City for free.
He will have suitors. He may have his head turned. It’s the stuff of nightmares for Johnson, who will still hope O’Dowda can be the difference between his side realising their potential and falling short again.
• Derby County > 8th: P37 – 56pts
Norwich City were well aware of Mason Mount – but priced out of any summer move as he caught the eye on loan at Vitesse Arnhem last season.
The 20-year-old Chelsea midfielder has missed Derby’s last nine league games, in which the Rams have won twice. He is now back in training – and Derby fans will hope their side’s good form returns with him.
• Preston North End > 7th: P38 – 57pts
Every Norwich fan will see Preston’s relentless form and recognise exactly what Alex Neil is fostering.
The influential Alan Browne has taken his game to another level – but limped out of their recent win at Middlesbrough and is missing international duty with Ireland this fortnight.
So all hail Ben Davies: Neil’s captain this season and a centre-back that allows Preston to bring the quality of play he desires, as well as earning five clean sheets in their previous 10 games.
If the trend continues, Preston’s form may prove more than simply eye-catching.
• Aston Villa > 6th: P38 – 57pts
There’s little to admire about how Aston Villa have gone about trying to earn their Premier League return: overspending and under-achieving.
Yet some things remain: Villa for me are still as good as any side Norwich have faced this season, their current form says they are now favourites to earn promotion via the play-offs – and Jack Grealish’s return from injury could not have been better times.
Handed the armband by Dean Smith and with his shins well rested, Grealish has returned Villa to a level such a big club at this level should expect.
If he carries on, they will take some stopping. Hopefully Norwich have fulfilled their side of the bargain before they head to Villa Park on the final day.
• Middlesbrough > P5: P37 – 58pts
It might seem lazy to look though Middlesbrough’s current squad and pick out Jonny Howson as their key man, but hear me out.
Tony Pulis had Howson shoe-horned in as a right wing-back recently – and it wasn’t working. Since then Pulis has played the former Norwich man as one of two forwards behind Boro’s central striker, although that wasn’t much more successful.
You imagine Pulis is drawing on all his experience to in the current break to make sure the side that hosts Norwich next weekend is solid, compact and efficient – ironing out their deficiencies and preparing them for one season-saving push. No doubt it will involve Howson in a more effective position.
And if you still think that’s lazy, then you can have John Obi Mikel instead – because the only reason he is currently at Boro is to deliver promotion this season, and nothing to do with what happens beyond.
• West Brom > 4th: P38 – 67pts
The Baggies’ key man from here is arguably who replaces manager Darren Moore.
But away from that is a group of players supposed to be nailed on for automatic promotion. The fact Dwight Gayle might be in a side that misses out is hard to get your head around.
Yet his partner in crime that could turn the tide. Jay Rodriguez has started every league game this season – remarkable given when Albion arrived at Carrow Road in August, he was expected to leave in that transfer window.
If the 29-year-old can take responsibility for the final eight games as well, Albion may recover their composure to find through the play-offs.
• Leeds United > 3rd: P38 – 73pts
If Kemar Roofe returns before the end of the season, he could prove crucial – especially if Leeds’ campaign ends up extended beyond early May.
And Pablo Hernandez has notably taken the Bielsa bull by the horns in recent weeks, just as Leeds needed it.
But the only man here is Patrick Bamford.
In Roofe’s absence, Bamford is carrying the weight of goalscoring expectation – for a side that has a perfect record when scoring first, and something below par if they don’t, the whole Leeds side needs Bamford in prolific form to bring the rest of his team-mates over the line.
• Sheffield United > 2nd: P38 – 74pts
Oliver Norwood has been outstanding already for the Blades.
Michael O’Neill said the 27-year-old’s decision to turn down his latest call-up from Northern Ireland for was due to: “a few personal issues at present…he feels he needs a wee break from it at this minute in time.”
Chris Wilder appears to have learned so much from the Blades’ overstretching last season, and it’s hard to see Norwood dropping the ball – instead, leading Sheffield United to a special finalé.
• Norwich City > 1st: P38 – 78pts
And last but quite the opposite to least, it’s Norwich City – where for all the key figures in City’s stunning season, it still feels Teemu Pukki would be the one who is hardest to place.
His continued success in front of goal – and assisting others when it’s not working out for him – will remain essential to City finishing the job.
Meanwhile his work rate and movement have never dropped. It’s that hunger that may well mean Norwich City won’t even need a dramatic intervention to turn a 38-game platform into memorable scenes come May.
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