There was little evidence of Stoke City’s much-vaunted new passing game here yesterday but for Norwich City it seems the benefits of their sizeable £23.5m net transfer spend in the summer are finally starting to be felt.
Five days after overturning a two-goal deficit to win at Watford in the Capital One Cup thanks to Gary Hooper’s first two strikes for the club, Chris Hughton’s men earned their first away points of the Premier League campaign with a deserved victory against a disappointing Stoke side.
Jonny Howson’s solitary 34th-minute strike was only their fourth goal in six league games but it was the least they merited from a performance that showcased the quality of their dynamic new Dutch midfielder Leroy Fer. If the jury remains out his compatriot and fellow new boy Ricky van Wolfswinkel – preferred to Hooper in the lone-striking role – Fer shone alongside Alex Tettey and Howson in a midfield three that established an early grip on the game that they simply never relinquished.
The 23-year-old saw a transfer to Everton break down in January but their loss appears the Canaries’ gain on this evidence. “He came a little bit later than most because he was involved with Dutch Under-21s,” said Hughton of his £4.5m signing from FC Twente. “With each training session, each game he is feeling more at home. He was excellent.”
He was also lucky. Fer – a man who once bought a £22,000 horse for his girlfriend before realising she could not keep it as she lived in an apartment – got away with another potentially costly mistake just after half-time when he tugged at Kenwyne Jones in the Norwich box but was fortunate that referee Anthony Taylor ignored the striker’s ensuing tumble. “Yeah, I pulled his shirt,” he confessed to a Sky interviewer afterwards. “Just a little bit.”
Fer’s honesty was matched by Mark Hughes, the Stoke manager. “We’re not going to hide behind that missed decision,” said Hughes. “We didn’t have enough players at the right level today.” For all the talk in the build up about Stoke’s rebirth as a passing team – no more “sky football” was striker Jones’s pre-match dig at Tony Pulis’s regime – they simply never got started and managed only two tame shots on John Ruddy’s goal.
For Norwich it was only their third league away win since Hughton replaced Paul Lambert last year and, by Hughton’s admission, eases some of the pressure that had begun to build after a slow start. “Before the game we were sitting fourth from bottom and that’s pressure in itself,” Hughton said.
The visiting supporters could have no complaints here, though. Their team’s start was as bright as their yellow shirts in the autumn sunshine as they forced Stoke on to the back foot immediately, almost getting their reward after nine minutes when Ryan Bennett got in front of Ryan Shawcross to turn Robert Snodgrass’s deep corner on to the crossbar. “We wanted to play the game at a fairly high tempo in that first half and not allow Stoke to get into any rhythm because they’ve been playing well,” said Hughton.
Far too many Stoke passes were going astray and although Marko Arnautovic had a glimpse of goal – firing narrowly over from a Charlie Adam lay-off – the hosts paid for their sluggishness moments later as Howson struck. Stoke lost the ball from a throw-in inside their own half, Marc Wilson heading it inadvertently inside to Anthony Pilkington who laid it on to Howson. With no defender closing down, the Norwich man was free to let fly from 25 yards with a shot that dipped beneath the right hand of the diving Asmir Begovic. It was a strike the goalkeeper will not enjoy reviewing.
Hughes sent on Jermaine Pennant and Stephen Ireland for Adam and Jonathan Walters at the start of the second half but Stoke’s improvement was minimal. After Jones’s penalty shout, the big striker then created a half-chance for himself but Ruddy saved comfortably. Norwich remained composed in their passing, and retained a threat with the help of their two wide players, Pilkington and Snodgrass, the latter drawing a fingertip save from Begovic with a fine curling effort. As it was, though, one goal was more than enough.Reuse content