No turning back now for Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City were buffeted by the whole gamut of emotions at the New York Stadium on a Championship ride now threatening to hurtle out of control.
Alex Neil's battlers went from second, and an automatic promotion spot behind Premier League new boys Watford, to fourth in the time it took Adam Hammill's floated cross to reach the unmarked Jordan Bowery to dash the visitors' hopes of a truly remarkable victory in arduous circumstances.
Neil may not have seen Lewis Grabban's act of folly in real-time, but the Scot was in no doubt the striker's first half red card was a turning point in a pulsating contest. The provocation was crude, as Craig Morgan attempted a grapple in keeping with the rugby league played in such northern outposts, but Grabban's retaliatory intent in the line of sight of referee Brown was deemed a more heinous crime.
City dug in for the long haul in a fevered atmosphere with both clubs striving to pursue their own conflicting ends. Gary Hooper's vicious 20-yard dipping volley, coupled with Middlesbrough's implosion at Fulham, pointed to that jarring twist in the plot most in these parts craved.
But there was one more cruel intervention after Rotherham's profligacy coupled with Norwich's stout defensive efforts had seemingly reached an impasse.
Bournemouth's response at home to Bolton tonight should provide the final clarity to the path that now awaits Neil's Norwich.
Fulham's last-day visit may resemble a chance to take stock and protect some weary limbs ahead of more epic drama, more character-inducing combat.
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Context is in short supply at present given the all-consuming nature of the promotion fight Norwich had managed to gatecrash following Neil's impressive restoration project. When City emerged from their autumnal slumbers, the prospect of a play-off berth remained in the balance.
Yet right up until Middlesbrough's Carrow Road win last time out Norwich were embroiled in a title race, let alone the no less challenging pursuit of an automatic pass to the Premier League.
The Canaries hardly deserve to be castigated for slipping away; not when they must dredge one last, collective effort from within and without.
City have been voluminously backed on the road at Bolton, Leeds and Rotherham. The explosion of noise that greeted Hooper's flying volley reverberated around South Yorkshire. Neil and his wounded players need that support network more than ever for the fraught passage that lies ahead.
The Scot insisted after Rotherham's leveller it would not be hard to lift tired minds and battered bodies. City may feel the fates have conspired against them, but any victim complex is misguided.
Norwich were masters of their own downfall in the critical phases against both Boro and the Millers.
The Teessiders' Carrow Road victory was aided by an introverted start to proceedings from the hosts that culminated in a messy, self-inflicted own goal. Grabban's rush of blood against his old club ultimately proved too wide a chasm to bridge.
Norwich may seek to harness that sense of grievance, or a feeling perhaps the world is conspiring against them, but Neil's side is no hostage to fortune.
City's dominance during a winning surge since the turn of the year was built on controlled possession and a cutting edge, linked to a defensive solidity which harvested a reassuring number of clean sheets to underline that bullish self-confidence Neil had managed to instil. But against opponents fuelled by the same desperation, the same intensity, Norwich have looked less composed and perhaps more hesitant in setting about the task of clearing a path to the Premier League.
The gruelling nature of such footballing attrition appears to have sapped the vim and vigour which was framing City's promotion quest; an understandable by-product of a wonderful refusal to accept the play-offs was the limit of their ambition. Now it is all about grinding out results and holding your nerve.
The Canaries have the experience inside that changing room garnered by young men who have prevailed over this course and distance before. It needs to come to the fore right now.
Any semblance of weakness will be ruthlessly exposed by rivals chasing the same prize. The looming prospect of an East Anglian derby collision merely inflates the epic sense of what is at stake.
Package all the highs and lows of the past 45 league games and close the book.
This is a new game Norwich is about to participate in; a raw-boned, bar-room brawl of a footballing duel where four consecutive wins over Ipswich or a comprehensive victory at Brentford's Griffin Park or even a stirring against-the-odds success at Bournemouth count for the same as Middlesbrough's league double over the Canaries.
This is about temperament as much as talent, pressure as much as predatory instincts, and that desire to resist which will define Norwich's Championship story.