Fury and desperation can fuel a Norwich City derby triumph
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Alex Neil has never lost an East Anglian derby. None of his players have either, yet there is a palpable nervousness around this Sunday's upcoming duel.
Wes Hoolahan was at the club when Ipswich triumphed in April 2009 but the Republic of Ireland international was not involved in what few at the time surely thought would be the last Suffolk win.
Perhaps it is that relatively long cycle of success, spanning seven meetings, that is inducing a degree of nauseous tension this side of the border. Neil himself is no respecter of streaks or historical quirks.
Fulham were beaten for the first time since television channels came in single figures at the end of the club's last Championship tilt. Other records have fallen since. No, the anxiety appears to reside in a season which is heading for unfulfilled expectations.
Promotion was the aim at the outset. Promotion was the mantra from the former chief executive at the annual meeting. Promotion can still be achieved over the run-in but few share the same sense of optimism that marked Norwich's surge around this time two seasons ago; a campaign which climaxed in the most wonderfully uplifting Championship play-off aggregate win over Ipswich. The jubilation and the outpouring of relief and pride that engulfed Carrow Road at the end of the second leg rivalled the scenes to greet the later Wembley win.
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That is what it means to beat your nearest and not so dearest. That is why those who rally around the Blues will be desperate to inflict not just a derby defeat but in all probability end any faint prospects of Norwich mounting a concerted play-off push. That is how high the stakes are this weekend. There is no need for any extra hype. This is a derby that could have far-reaching ramifications. Neil and his players must block out all the extraneous noise. It requires an emotional detachment from the maelstrom that erupts around this fixture.
Norwich, at Carrow Road of late, have been composed and committed. Quality attacking play has fused with a degree of defensive resolve sadly absent too often away from home. Ipswich will be robust and physical and direct but Neil, and whoever he has deployed in this fixture, have had the antidote. The methods and the gameplan are unlikely to change, it is the circumstances around this latest episode that feel different.
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That pre-festive slump, following on from the tame surrender of their Premier League status, brought a searing focus around a manager and a set of players who are struggling to produce the consistent seam of results required to suggest they can mount a genuine push for an immediate top flight return. But this is a game in isolation. And that might just work in the Canaries' favour.
Forget the state of play in the promotion stakes. Forget the obvious flaws exposed routinely on the road. This is a bare-knuckle contest at Carrow Road where young men can forever be remembered and cherished by generations of supporters long after boots are hung up.
Steve Bruce will always be synonymous with that thumping late header in a League Cup semi-final; Grant Holt for the glorious 'laughing cavalier' routine and the hat-trick on home soil. None of this current Canary collective will want to be associated with a bitter, rancid experience.
Ipswich will inevitably end the derby hoodoo. That is the nature of a generational combat. But it can not happen this weekend. City must match the desperation of Mick McCarthy's squad because the alternative is fresh recriminations and the realisation a season with so much promise is effectively over. That is all the incentive they need.
Neil himself repeated a simple maxim after last weekend's defeat at Burton. You have to match less technically-endowed sides for effort and endeavour in the Championship before Norwich's perceived greater quality is able to flourish.
What better stage to prove they can do that than in the white hot heat of a cross-border duel.