Final stop for Norwich City before the promised land
NORWICH CITY 2, COVENTRY CITY 2: Carrow Road was awash with yellow and green as Norwich City said goodbye to an old friend after a brief reconciliation that lasted just a year.
The farewell party was raucous and emotional; Paul Lambert stood rooted to the spot drinking in every last drop of applause, soaking it all up in front of the Barclay Stand.
It had all started a week earlier after promotion to the Premier League was guaranteed and it will go on for a while yet. Until the rise and rise of Norwich City Football Club against all the odds finally sinks in and everyone realises it's time to wake up.
For many it's been a glorious dream, but what lies ahead is as hard as anything that the club has faced in years, arguably more difficult than when Nigel Worthington led the last foray into the top flight seven years ago.
City have joined the Harrods set, but will they still shop in Poundland? Will club and manager find the happy medium that has worked well for the last two years, but of which so much is now demanded?
The final game of the season may have had the feel of a testimonial about it, but there cameo moments that exemplified just what Lambert requires of his players: midfielder Andrew Crofts, skipper Grant Holt and the joint effort of on-loan substitutes Henri Lansbury and Dani Pacheco come to mind.
Crofts bit into the tackle in the first minute of a match that meant nothing to Norwich – and didn't stop running until referee Darren Deadman blew his whistle for the final time and signalled the biggest leaving part you have ever witnessed. Crofts' game, perhaps more than any other's, is the one that best shows off the commitment, desire and hunger that Lambert demands.
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Holt picked up the Player of the Season award again, but his big moment in the game was his last of the season, as he rose in typical fashion to head home a perfect cross from Marc Tierney to equalise for Norwich two minutes after Richard Keogh had given the visitors the lead. Job done, he was taken off, his departure greeted by a wall of sound from the faithful.
Crofts and Holt are part of the furniture, but Pacheco and Lansbury may have played their last games for the Canaries. They are both 20 years old, both on loan from major Premier League clubs and quite possibly won't don the Norwich shirt again.
Yet for the final third of the game when they were together on the pitch, they played as if the title was on the line. Pacheco was all dropped shoulders and tricky feet, Lansbury aggressive and niggly, leaving his mark on the legs of Sammy Clingan and then refusing to bend when the ex-City player tried to go head to head with him as they debated the finer point of the football tackle.
Lansbury adds to his game a sweet pass, and it was his driving run to the area and the little slide pass to his left which set up Pacheco, who twice dummied a defender before firing the ball home Spanish style – into the roof of the net.
The last time a Lambert loan player has been so admired on the final day was a year ago when Fraser Forster was accorded his own personal audience with the crowd just before the end of the game against Carlisle. Before that there had been so many no-hopers that it was hard to know just what their motives were for spending a stay-cation in Norfolk.
If a player has some of the qualities of Holt, Crofts, Lansbury and Pacheco, then he will fulfil the Lambert criteria – and possibly be wanted by every manager in the country bar those with millions to spend who also require the attribute 'world class'.
In amongst the celebrations and the observations a football match did actually break out, although it was largely an irrelevance in the greater scheme of things.
The decibel level had risen to breaking point as kick-off approached and pretty much stayed that way for most of the game.
Wes Hoolahan had celebrated promotion with a haircut while Russell Martin had a word in the ear of Marlon King as the players shook hands – the sort of minor observations usually prompted for 'dead rubber' games.
Coventry have a new manager so there was a reason for a few of their players to impress – they tried a few long-rangers in the early stages, but David Bell and Aron Gunnarsson didn't trouble John Ruddy.
Hoolahan was, as always, the man who not only wanted the ball, but was doing most with it, his guile and cunning matching Crofts' magnificent efforts.
Clingan's departure from City following relegation to League One didn't sit well with many City fans, who taunted him with chants of 'It could have been you', but he showed what a good player he is, constantly trying to prompt Coventry from deep.
Ruddy got down well to save from Lukas Jutkiewicz, but Marlon King –who came in for the usual stick for the stands for very different reasons – was dire. One effort flashed by Ruddy's left post, another was so poor it was laughable.
The best moment of the half was provided by keeper Michael Quirke, whose trailing legs denied Holt, who had met a Tierney ball square on with his forehead.
Coventry came out well for the second half, making life difficult for City, so it was no surprise when they went ahead, Richard Keogh touching Jutkiewicz's shot over the line after he had won the original ball in by Carl Baker.
Holt's moment came two minutes later before he made way for the young guns.
There wasn't much height in an attack of Hoolahan, Simeon Jackson and Pacheco, but when Lansbury broke on 62 minutes, he knew that a ball to Pacheco's feet would bring it rewards. A drop of the aforementioned shoulders and City were ahead.
But, wouldn't you know it on a day like this, Coventry pegged it back within two minutes, their patient play rewarded when Jutkiewicz turned in Hussey's low cross from the left of the area.
Pacheco then cracked a curling free-kick against the bar, with Zak Whitbread stabbing the rebound wide while sub Adam Drury would have brought the house down had his shot not been blocked by Jordan Clarke.
But there was to be no trademark late, late goal and the noise levels rose again as the final whistle approached: it was party time. Clingan and Bell swapped shirts with Hoolahan and Jackson respectively, but the irony didn't have the same effect as the crowd rose to salute their warriors.
Lambert took hold of a microphone to thank them before wives and children were collected for the lap of acknowledgement. Coventry fans, rather churlishly, booed, which was unbecoming of them – but the manager got his message across. As he always does.
It was his 99th game in charge of City. I wonder where his 100th will be?