Jackson hits heights to leave Norwich City on brink
NORWICH CITY 3, DERBY COUNTY 2: And then there were two. Just two games of football to win for Norwich City to be guaranteed a place in the Premier League next season.
Maybe not even that, depending on how Cardiff City get on at home to Middlesbrough on Monday, just two and a half hours before City kick off at Portsmouth.
If Cardiff lose and City win, it's all over.
Those darned ifs, buts and maybes again – so perhaps best not go there.
Better, instead, to look at the bottom of League Two, where Stockport are hanging on to their league status only because there is the faintest of chances they can do a Bon Accord and turn around a goal difference which stands 35 against them with two left. Why mention Stockport? Because a year ago they were the visitors to Carrow Road. Now they're heading into the Conference.
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In 12 months, the gap between two recent opponents has stretched an unimaginable distance.
Just how far was perhaps best illustrated by the scenes when Simeon Jackson scored his third of the game and City's winner seconds before the end of five minutes of added time – a party trick that City have got down to a fine art. Carrow Road has rarely been louder this season. John Ruddy sprinted the length of the pitch in a time Usain Bolt would be proud of to join the players as they celebrated in front of the Snakepit, the occupants of which poured forward to show their adulation and appreciation.
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The occupants of the bench – manager, coaches, subs – ran on to the field in scenes reminiscent of the day in 1993 when Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd realised they had finally ended Manchester United's 26-year wait for the title.
The relief at Carrow Road, should City be promoted, will be felt in an equal measure.
Inevitably, many in the crowd were keeping tabs on what Cardiff were doing, although the only bulletin came after six minutes when Peter Whittingham scored their winner at Preston.
While that was being celebrated, Norwich were settling into their stride against Derby. No need for panic, but a big need for patience.
Jackson's pace had caused Nottingham Forest problems and left Ipswich chasing shadows and he gave Derby an early taste of what was to come when he won a chase with Shaun Barker before lashing a left-foot shot wide.
Hoolahan then had a shot blocked, Holt scuffed an effort and Andrew Crofts forced a good save out of goalkeeper Brad Jones as he dived low to connect with Marc Tierney's cross.
Another Jackson effort stung Jones' fingers. Lots of good work, but after the demolition of Ipswich we all wanted a goal. Time, though, to remember that last Thursday's game had no bearing on this one: Derby had, after all, been unlucky not to beat QPR a week ago, having despatched fading Leeds.
Derby were relying on the counter, with the speedy Theo Robinson, although his turn and shot was easy for Ruddy to gather.
As half-time approached, City again started buzzing around the Derby area, David Fox volleying straight at Jones after some nice build-up play. Derby's efforts weren't as punchy: Gary Roberts volleyed way, way wide while Stephen Pearson did well to find space, but ruined the good work with a wild shot.
But good things come to those who wait, and on the stroke of half-time, Jackson struck. It was a goal he deserved, and it owed an awful lot to Holt's swift thinking. The striker took a quick throw on the left, lofting the ball over the head of right-back John Brayford for Tierney – who usually monopolises the throw-ins down that side – who put it in the area where Jackson jumped above Roberts to head home.
The bouncy castle that is Fortress Carrow Road rocked its way to the half-time whistle, but was silenced nine minutes after the resumption when Derby equalised, totally out of the blue. Alberto Bueno swung in a cross from the left and Davies got in front of Tierney to head home.
Minutes later Whitbread – who along with Elliott Ward may have been playing in carpet slippers in the heart of the defence, so relaxed were they – departed with what appeared to be a hip injury, replaced by Rob Edwards, although referee Andy Haines rather foolishly delayed the change until Derby had won a free-kick. Mr Haines' performance began to go downhill from then on.
Time to regroup, which City did to great effect.
The status quo lasted just six minutes. Andrew Surman took control in midfield and played the ball to Holt on the edge of the area, his back to goal. Holt laid it off immediately to Jackson who clipped it first time into the top corner – a terrific goal worthy of the situation.
The natural order had been restored. For three minutes at least.
Bueno went from provider to scorer, making his way to 20 yards from goal and then firing into the far right corner, just out of Ruddy's reach. It was a fine shot, but he should have been closed down.
Derby had been a different animal in the second period, going behind clearly prompting a change of attitude, but at 2-2 they were content to see out the final half an hour without any dramas. City weren't.
Martin slid a ball across the face of the area, before Edwards met a Fox corner perfectly from six yards, only for Jones to pull off the first of two top-class saves.
There was confusion when Mr Haines got it utterly wrong at a City free-kick in the centre of the park. Robbie Savage fouled Hoolahan and then stood close to the ball, preventing sub Dani Pacheco from taking the kick. Pacheco saw an opening, took it quickly, and from the wrong place. The pass was poor, Derby intercepted and were away – five white shirts were heading in one direction while City were flat-footed, the relief palpable when the official blew his whistle for it to be retaken. Derby were apoplectic, the shy and retiring Mr Savage particularly so.
Henri Lansbury came on for Fox, and after curling a right-footer wide tested Jones again with a 30-yard grass-cutter which was heading for the bottom left-hand corner.
Derby were wasting time at every opportunity – their season was safe with a point so who could blame them, however unedifying it all was: Savage was replaced by Jeff Hendrick with a minute to go and you have never seen anyone milk it so much.
In time added on they made another change – and this is the one that proved costly for them.
City were throwing everything in Jones' direction. It looked like it wasn't meant to be. Lansbury took a corner on the left, Hoolahan helped it on with a flick of the boot, the ball fell for Martin who lashed a shot goalwards. Bueno cleared it off the line, it pinged back towards Jackson, hit him in the midriff and went back over the line.
Cue the sort of celebrations that proved that everyone inside Carrow Road knew exactly how important that goal and the accompanying three points could prove to be.