It’s been a truly wild ride – but at least Norwich City got there on time!
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
In Monday's column I emphasised the need for a strong referee for the play-off final.
When Patrick Bamford crumpled in a heap under the slightest pressure from Martin Olsson in the opening minutes and was totally ignored by Mike Dean I knew we'd got one.
However, the message clearly hadn't registered with Daniel Ayala, when he stopped and looked pleadingly to the referee rather than trying to hinder Cameron Jerome's run in on goal, having been dispossessed as he attempted a grotesque parody of the Cruyff turn, or Jelle Vossen as he hurled himself to the ground having apparently been unbalanced by a rogue pocket of air turbulence adjacent to Wes Hoolahan's knee.
Karma, as they say, is a bitch, and to City fans who had ground their teeth throughout Boro's comprehensive exhibition of the footballing dark arts at Carrow Road last month this was heavenly to watch, with the sound of their opposite numbers barracking John Ruddy for taking his time over goal-kicks the sweetest of music to the ears of the massed ranks in yellow and green.
After Boro's win at Norwich, Aitor Karanka told the Northern Echo that his players 'deserved' to be in the Premier League. Since then they have lost out on both automatic promotion and the play-offs. It's difficult to imagine Alex Neil making that sort of rash and precipitate statement, but that wasn't the Spaniard's only error of judgment.
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Sending decorators into their Wembley dressing room before the game to deck it out in Middlesbrough colours, crests and photos seemed at odds with the decision to make a late entrance to the stadium (which was made later by the London traffic – who could have anticipated that?) but Boro's whole approach suggested a degree of arrogance and a sense of entitlement that was cruelly exposed when the game itself began. 'Believe' was their watchword, but their players palpably didn't when the pressure was on.
Like Neil, Karanka is a young coach making his name in the game, but whereas the Scot ensured that City's build-up was totally familiar, Karanka seemed intent on playing mind games with both his own players and his opponents which manifestly failed to produce the required results. Sometimes managers can be just too clever for their own good; the Jose Mourinho influence perhaps?
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As for Neil, his reputation continues to soar, and I for one can't wait to see how he adapts to the Premier League, nor how an augmented City squad that's had a full pre-season under him will develop the pressing game that has brought him so much success in his short career. It's going to be an exciting summer, albeit a short one due to kick-off on August 8. And so we come to the end of a season that seems to have gone on forever. That humid day at Molineux back in August when the Canaries slipped to a disappointing defeat at the hands of a very ordinary Wolves side seems almost like another lifetime. Since then we have had highs and lows, but also the most rewarding finale I've ever experienced in nearly 50 years of following City.
There have been times this season when it's been hard to write positively and others where it's been hard to rein in my euphoria and I have to admit that, like the players, I'm looking forward to a summer break. However, I'd just like to finish by thanking everyone who reads and comments on this column and hopefully some of you will pop along to the Canaries Trust stand at the Royal Norfolk Show and say hello.
It's been something of a wild ride this year, but I couldn't have asked for better travelling companions!