Jonny Howson; he’s Leeds and he knows he is, and Elland Road accepted with good grace a surreal display of humility from United’s former captain last night.
The midfielder set Norwich City up for a precious victory with a beautiful finish in the second half, the opening goal on his return to the club where his career as a footballer was made. It was said that Howson left Leeds with great reluctance in 2012 – sold by Ken Bates as his contract ran down – and his reaction to scoring on 57 minutes was Howson’s way of proving it.
He turned a tight contest by curling home a shot with the outside of his right boot, lifting Norwich back into the Championship’s top two on an evening when positions changed constantly. His refusal to celebrate was customary but as the moment sunk in, he turned to the South Stand and held his hands up in a gesture of apology.
The respect was mutual and his strike goes down as a rare occasion when the home crowd at Elland Road has applauded the scorer of an opposition goal. City were struggling to prise a win from Leeds at that stage but Howson was worth his moment. He took more acknowledgement at full-time.
Prior to his goal, Leeds – surprisingly happy in the company of the Championship’s leading clubs this season – had done their best to drive Norwich to distraction.
Whatever the reasons for United’s brush with relegation around Christmas, the division’s top six were not responsible for pushing them in that direction. Leeds have taken 19 points from those teams, meddling in the promotion fight with some regularity.
Norwich needed more than a point yesterday and their manager, Alex Neil, would have been hard-pressed to accept a draw when that outcome threatened to knock City down to third in the table. Though Howson forced the issue eventually, reports of United’s season ending early have been somewhat exaggerated. They were competitive again if not nearly dangerous enough.
Neil Redfearn took his players to task after their loss to Cardiff City at the weekend, implying that their application and attitude was predominantly to blame, but the structure returned to their performance against Norwich and City were banging their collective head off a wall until Howson intervened.
The signs seemed ominous for Neil when Graham Dorrans, the Scottish midfielder on loan from West Bromwich Albion, smashed a penalty against the crossbar on 31 minutes, the first chance of a game which produced relatively few.
Seconds later he missed as good an opportunity from similar range but City’s willingness to commit men forward in the second half paid off when Howson scored. From there they hardly looked back and Dorrans put United’s fourth successive defeat beyond doubt in the last minute of normal time.
Leeds once had the reputation of being Norwich’s feeder club but the prominence of ex-United players in City’s squad is less striking than it was. Bradley Johnson served a ban last night, leaving Howson as the only returning player in Norwich colours. Luciano Becchio did not make the bench. In two years at Carrow Road, the striker rarely has.
All three of them would have fitted into Redfearn’s plans with absentees at Leeds plentiful. Minus endless options in midfield, United’s head coach took a chance on Granddi Ngoyi and gave the Frenchman a full debut, trusting that Ngoyi’s niggling thigh injury would stand the pace. It held up well. Giuseppe Bellusci’s demotion to the bench negated the chance that he and Cameron Jerome might renew hostilities, though the crowd gave Jerome some treatment anyway.
From the start, the match was more open and adventurous than Saturday’s muddled defeat to Cardiff. Norwich pressed up the field, leaving space to attack, and Ngoyi’s positioning in front of United’s defence allowed Luke Murphy to advance without fear of leaving gaps behind him. For all that, the first 20 minutes slipped by without an attempt on goal at either end.
Leeds’ pressure at that stage tempted mistakes which Norwich refused to make. John Ruddy’s defence cleared a dangerous free-kick from Alex Mowatt as the goalkeeper advanced and failed to meet the ball with a punch, and Ruddy took a difficult catch in a collision with Billy Sharp after Russell Martin skewed a header high into the air on 21 minutes. In open play, final balls failed to stick and both Redfearn and Neil stood passively on the touchline, waiting for the impasse to break.
Before long the delicate balance began drawing loose fouls, misplaced passes and yellow cards. Martin Olsson, Norwich’s left-back, was booked for dissent after complaining about a tackle by Charlie Taylor and Alex Tettey incurred the second caution of the night by tripping Sam Byram, but Norwich were given an easy chance to open the scoring when Howson’s driving run into the box tempted Liam Cooper to drag him down on 31 minutes.
Dorrans took the penalty but hammered it with full force against Marco Silvestri’s crossbar, bouncing the ball out without the need for technology. The midfielder looked suitably sheepish and worse again when he lashed a shot over an exposed goal from 12 yards 60 seconds later.
For Redfearn, most satisfaction came from the sight of his team functioning properly at the back. The shambles of Saturday was adequately dealt with, helped by Ngoyi’s presence and the return of Bamba’s composure.
News of other scorelines might have filtered through to Neil’s dressing room at half-time and Norwich dispensed with all caution after the interval. Silvestri’s diving save pushed a fiercely hit cross from Martin through a crowded box and Tettey drove a 20-yard shot inches wide before Howson burst the dam.
The midfielder was left completely alone inside United’s box as Nathan Redmond slipped a pass to his feet and in the heat of the moment, with all eyes on him, he had the presence of mind to strike the ball sweetly and dink it around Silvestri right hand.
Scott Wootton almost equalised immediately, cutting into Norwich’s box and producing an shot which deflected wildly over Ruddy’s net, but City held the game tightly after that and did not let go.
Mowatt came closest to forcing an equaliser, drawing a spectacular one-handed save from Ruddy on 84 minutes, but Dorrans killed Leeds off with a 16-yard strike on 90 minutes after Jerome burst past Gaetano Berardi on the right wing.
The wild celebrations in the away dug-out were those of a camp who think they’re going up.