Alex Neil's buoyant Norwich City are in good shape ahead of a key spell of Championship games
PUBLISHED: 10:00 14 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:59 16 February 2015
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Just after the Brentford defeat someone phoned in to Canary Call to confirm that he had carried out an exhaustive survey of Hamilton Academical fans.
His research had revealed that Alex Neil was nothing more than a lump-it-and-hope merchant and that we would be condemned to dour long-ball football under his tenure.
I don’t know whether the gentleman in question was at Carrow Road on Saturday or the Valley on Tuesday, but those of us that were saw some of the best passing football played by a Norwich City side for some considerable time.
Christian Grey would have been envious of the level of domination achieved by the Canaries for long periods of both games as first Blackpool and then Charlton were forced to endure 50 Shades of City.
However, the problem that City have at the moment is that while they have embraced Neil’s high pressing game whereby any opponent in possession is immediately closed down, often by more than one yellow shirt, they are currently struggling to maintain it for a full 90 minutes, and it’s when the intensity drops that they become vulnerable.
While that wasn’t too much of an issue against a dire Blackpool it was much more of a problem against a Charlton side that had only previously lost twice at home this season and were still smarting from their first-half run around.
Of course it doesn’t help when possession is needlessly surrendered, a point that appeared to be made to Martin Olsson by an animated Neil before the players had even got off the pitch, and it’s that level of managerial intensity and desire that could yet see this season end successfully.
Neil’s post-match interview on Tuesday said everything you need to know about how things are changing in the dressing room.
Whereas Chris Hughton or Neil Adams would almost certainly have emphasised the valuable three points rather than the near slip up, Neil almost ignored the victory in his desire to make sure that everyone knew that he was less than happy with the errors that had nearly cost his side at least two points. That is the mentality of a winner.
What has particularly impressed me is the renewed confidence that he has engendered in players who are clearly enjoying their football again. Lewis Grabban for one seems to be a different player to the rather dejected figure who spent most of the last three months in the shadow of Cameron Jerome and Gary Hooper.
On Tuesday his close control and constant harrying turned the experienced Tal Ben Haim, who had looked imperious in the reverse fixture, into a nervous wreck and his goal, following his excellent work for Johnny Howson’s sublime opener, was richly deserved.
Sebastien Bassong has also been brought back from the cold and so far looks like the imposing player of two seasons ago, while Bradley Johnson was like a man possessed at The Valley as he won challenge after challenge.
The signs are good, but City now enter a month of games which will define their season as they play promotion-chasing sides, starting with an in-form Wolves today, who will be much less forgiving of any lapses of concentration than their last two opponents.
With the top eight bunching ever more closely a win is essential and could finally see City back into the play-off spots at last.
I talked last week about mental strength and Tuesday night suggested that City are starting to acquire it. I’m not convinced that a few weeks ago Norwich would have come back to win after surrendering a 2-0 lead, but they dug in and upped their game.
They’ll need to do that on other occasions before promotion can be achieved, but one step at a time.