JAMIE HILL - Monday, March 14, 2011
With a mere ten games remaining on the calendar, Zak Whitbread is focused on clinching automatic promotion with Norwich City.
Whitbread, who recently turned 27, is a relative newcomer to Norwich's campaign after having missed the first half of the season with a calf injury and a hamstring injury.
For the Houston-born defender, the return to the field could not come soon enough.
"It was a relief in some ways," Whitbread recently told YA. "I got injured pretty much not long after I joined and coming to a new club it was frustrating not to be able to play and to repay the faith shown to the [coach], so it was a frustrating time with the couple of injuries that I had."
Whitbread signed with Norwich in January of 2010, but struggled to stay healthy until the past three months. His return came at a crucial time for the Canaries, whose starting center-back Leon Barnett suffered a season-ending injury in February.
Suddenly, Whitbread found himself shouldering significant responsibility for the promotion chasers after playing only four games over a season and a half.
"My first game was on Boxing Day and I hadn't played a reserve game before that, so I was thrown in at the deep end," Whitbread admitted. "I did well, there were a few aches and pains obviously afterwards and in the first few games, but feel I'm getting into full fitness now and we had some big results and we've set high standards for ourselves. We rarely get beat. We're a good team. I'm enjoying playing with the guys."
At the moment, Whitbread's attention has been turned exclusively to the promotion battle brewing at the top of the Championship.
"That's the big aim for us – automatic promotion," the defender declared. "We're two points off second place, so that's really the aim that we're looking at. Everyone's geared towards it, everyone's focused towards it, so all the guys and the staff are working really hard and that's why everyone's a bit disappointed with dropping a couple of points, but on the other hand, you have to look at it as a point gained on teams who got beat around us [last week]."
Norwich currently occupies third place in their division, behind Swansea City on goal difference. For the team, automatic promotion to the promised land of the Premiership is tantalizing close.
However, for Norwich City, the outlook was not always so rosy.
After the Canaries slumped to relegation to League One in 2009, their humiliation was compounded by a farcical beginning to their campaign: a 7-1 obliteration by Colchester City, the worst home loss in Norwich City's entire history.
But the embarrassing rout had a silver lining. After the loss, Norwich handed coach Bryan Gunn his walking papers. In a strange twist of fate, he was replaced by Colchester's Paul Lambert, the architect of the 7-1 demolition that began the managing carousel from the outset.
Lambert righted the ship and Norwich won the League One title and an immediate return to the second tier, finishing nine points clear at the top of the standings.
Now Norwich is challenging for a second successive promotion and Whitbread has nothing but praise for his boss.
"He's turned the club right around," said Whitbread. "When he came in, the team was beaten 7-1 on the opening day of the season. He's come in and given the guys so much belief and motivation and obviously the tactical side of things really worked as well. He's been brilliant for the guys, everyone respects him massively, he's been there as a player before: he won the European Cup and the various trophies. He's instilled so much belief and the guys have really bought into it and long may that continue."
Now that he has put his injury troubles behind him, Whitbread mentioned his desire to represent the US, although after such a long layoff he is taking things one step at a time.
"The first priority was to get back [healthy] and to get back playing and doing well for Norwich," he stated. "I've always said anything beyond that would be a massive bonus. It's still something that's high up there on the list of ambitions, which I would like to achieve.
"I've played in the U-20s and U-23s, so it's something I've really wanted to do," added Whitbread. "As I said, all I can do is keep performing as well as I can for Norwich and hopefully the national team is aware of me back playing and hopefully I'll get a chance sooner or later of proving what I can have to offer."