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Nov 24, 2012

Hughton's Canaries chirping up

In an environment populated by men with big egos, huge achievements or intimidating physiques, Chris Hughton is the anomaly. Small, modest and polite to a fault, he is the everyman in the surreal world of Premier League management. Perhaps that is why he can be underestimated but the coach once deemed 'Clipboard Chris' is actually 'Common-sense Chris', the boss who has transformed Norwich's fortunes without seemingly doing anything spectacular.

"It's making sure we are not conceding the goals that are going to lose us games and getting in enough positions to get the valuable goals we need and at the moment we are doing it right," he said after this 1-1 draw with Everton. It is not the boldest mission statement, but quotability does not rank highly among his attributes.

Yet while Hughton may not be one of the game's great philosophers, purists or personalities, he has an understated effectiveness. His teams may not be the game's great adventurers, but they can be quiet overachievers. The Hughton formula, unlike the Mark Hughes formula, seems transferable. And Norwich, a team tipped to suffer a debilitating dose of second-season syndrome, find themselves in rude health.

It was not the case seven weeks ago. Then they lost 4-1 at Chelsea, a second successive league defeat in which they had conceded a combined total of nine goals. They were second from bottom, without a league win under Hughton and troubled times were anticipated.

Since then, however, they have gone six league games unbeaten, with their defence breached just twice. They have overcome Arsenal and Manchester United at fortress Carrow Road and now come from behind to frustrate Everton. "We showed great character," Hughton said; a comment about one afternoon equally applicable to the last seven weeks.

But Hughton has not reinvented the wheel. Instead, he has imbued his side with spirit, made them organised and industrious and, in time-honoured fashion, built from the back. His signings have brought Premier League experience to the defence and two combined for the equaliser. Javier Garrido curled in a free-kick and Sebastian Bassong, who briefly played for Hughton at Newcastle, rose highest and headed forcefully. Tim Howard's save came after the ball had crossed the line and before Grant Holt bundled in the rebound.

It left David Moyes with a familiar feeling of frustration. "That was pretty hard to take," said a manager whose team have a disturbing habit of losing leads. His disappointment was accentuated by the circumstances: Leighton Baines was penalised for a challenge on Steve Morison that Moyes did not believe was a foul and both Johnny Heitinga and Howard, he felt, could have done more to prevent the goal. "A little bit of both," he said.

Both, however, had prevented an equaliser earlier - Howard with a sprawling save to deny Anthony Pilkington and Heitinga with a goal-line clearance to thwart Robert Snodgrass. Both came in a second half during which Norwich responded valiantly.

"Everton were better than us in the first half," Hughton said, with unsurprising honesty. Indeed, as a dress rehearsal for the day Everton hope will never come, the first half was a success. The problem was that the second period certainly was not.

Minus the magnetic chest, jutting elbows and supersized hair of Marouane Fellaini - suspended rather than sold, as he could be if his current form tempts the wealthy - it was time for Plan B. It necessitated a new look, and not just because no one quite resembles Fellaini.

Without the most idiosyncratically effective target man around, Steven Naismith occupied the role in the hole. Everton scored a goal created by one man, in Bryan Oviedo, and scored by another, Naismith, who are not in Moyes' strongest side. The Scot swept in a shot from the Costa Rican's cutback, completing a move where Leon Osman, with a wonderfully judged diagonal pass, had released Oviedo.

The stand-ins were standing tall. But the longer the game went on, the more threadbare Everton's squad looked. The speed and incision of the injured Kevin Mirallas were missed; so, too, Fellaini's ability to be the outlet, to hold the ball up and ease the pressure on his defence. With Nikica Jelavic below par and Osman fading after a fine first half, Everton's premier attacking threat was their left-back: Baines sashayed forward on a storming solo run and almost scored.

But Moyes' inactivity on the touchline was enforced. "We were a bit short at right-back, short in forward areas," the Scot said. "We didn't have an awful lot to alter it." Indeed his only change, introducing Apostolos Vellios, came in added time. The theory that he has quality but not quantity, and only about 15 or 16 players he actually trusts, was rather reinforced.

While Norwich had a slow start to the season, Everton began brilliantly. But as City have accelerated, the Merseysiders are in danger of dropping back into the pack. Hughton has a softly-spoken style but the Canaries are chirping up.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Sebastian Bassong. A first Norwich goal was the rightful reward for the colossus at the back. Bassong played briefly for Hughton at Newcastle and if he rarely displayed his Tyneside form at Tottenham, he now looks back to his best.

EVERTON VERDICT: It is now only one win in seven league games and, for the second successive week, they squandered the lead Naismith gave them. Fellaini and Mirallas were missed as, perhaps, were Darron Gibson and Phil Neville, with Thomas Hitzlsperger an unconvincing understudy in midfield. It would help, too, if Tony Hibbert were fully fit. Phil Jagielka was moved to right-back, but that removed Everton's best central defender from the heart of the back four.

NORWICH VERDICT: It was an impressive effort in the end. Had Everton scored a second goal in the first half, as they threatened, then a comeback might have been beyond Norwich. They lost the otherwise excellent keeper Ruddy to a thigh problem, which will be assessed on Sunday, while the injured Michael Turner is also set to sit out Wednesday's game with Southampton. Ryan Bennett deputised and was praised by his manager.

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