No going back now that Canaries have got this far
PUBLISHED: 12:00 06 January 2010 | UPDATED: 07:14 02 July 2010
There comes a moment in every promotion challenge when even the most cautious supporter must think, yes, I really believe we've cracked this. Norwich City's 1-0 win at Wycombe Wanderers, which took them into second place in the League One table at 5pm on Saturday, may just have been one of those moments.
There comes a moment in every promotion challenge when even the most cautious supporter must think, yes, I really believe we've cracked this.
Norwich City's 1-0 win at Wycombe Wanderers, which took them into second place in the League One table at 5pm on Saturday, may just have been one of those moments.
True, the Canaries faced fairly mediocre opponents and they nudged into the automatic promotion places only on goal difference on a day when their two main rivals for second spot were otherwise occupied - Charlton by a fruitless journey to Walsall where it seems the "scorched earth" policy of hot dustbins and plastic sheets failed once again to make the surface fit for football, and Colchester feeling the heat in a different sense with a 7-0 roasting at Preston in the FA Cup.
But the game at Adams Park had echoes of previous occasions when mere optimism became something more significant. One look at the league table in the next day's newspapers illustrated that City had not just strung together an impressive run of results - more that they had issued a statement of intent to the rest of the division.
It happened when Nigel Worthington's team won 2-0 at Ipswich to go top of the Nationwide League table for Christmas 2003.
And, longer ago and perhaps more akin to the Wycombe experience, it happened when Ken Brown's side won 3-1 at Oldham in front of a crowd of fewer than 4,000 in December 1985 to go top of the former Division Two, the fourth victory in what proved to be a run of 10 straight league wins.
Both City teams subsequently stormed to the title and paraded their trophy from City Hall balcony.
It doesn't always work out so neatly. Those who were at Anfield in December 1988 may have felt a similar sense of destiny after a 1-0 win over Liverpool, courtesy of Andy Townsend's goal, guaranteed Dave Stringer's City team top spot in Division One for Christmas.
But the feeling that the Football League title itself may not be beyond the Canaries was premature and they finished fourth behind Arsenal, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest after a disastrous April.
However, with the possible exception of Leeds United - seen by most observers as this season's League One champions elect - there are no real giants lurking at the top of the beanstalk this time round.
Charlton Athletic are arguably the best side to have visited Carrow Road so far this season, despite the margin of Colchester United's victory on the opening day, and yes, the U's will be fired up like never before for their rematch with City on Saturday week following months of acrimony between the two clubs over Paul Lambert's controversial managerial switch.
But whatever happens when City visit the Weston Homes Community Stadium or The Valley, I don't believe either of those sides is better equipped than the Canaries to return to the Championship.
The biggest threat to City comes not from their rivals but from injury to one or more of their key players - or a weak-kneed decision to sell one of them in the January transfer window. Lambert insists that will not happen and that supporters would "burn this place down" if it did.
It would be very surprising if there were not bids for players such as Wes Hoolahan and Grant Holt if, indeed, there have not been inquiries already. But on the historically dangerous assumption that City will not part with one of their prize assets, what is there to stop them in the second half of the season?
The story of 19 weeks from August 22 to January 2 has been one of almost unbroken success.
Lambert varied his line-up in his first few matches in charge as he tried to assess the squad he inherited, but soon hit on a winning formula - pick your best players and find the formation that suits them, rather than adopt a system and try to make the players fit.
An illustration of how Lambert's team selection has evolved is the fact that only four of the starting line-up from his first match in charge, the 5-2 home win over Wycombe - Adam Drury, Korey Smith, Simon Lappin and Holt - were in the eleven for Saturdayreturn fixture at Adams Park.
Players such as Hoolahan, Darel Russell, Chris Martin and Gary Doherty were gradually re-introduced into the first team and the results speak for themselves.
Just two defeats in 21 league games under the current boss, eight successive home wins - just two short of the club record - and top scorers in the division . . . perhaps Lambert, or as he would prefer to put it, his team, has been almost too successful.
Because now that City are in the automatic promotion places, there is no going back.
Though it may be enjoyable to visit new grounds for the first time and watch your team winning handsomely, the fact is one season in League One is more than enough for Norwich City.
They have generated such high expectations that anything less than promotion now will seem like a huge anti-climax.