Norwich City back in the Premier League: ‘This was an iconic afternoon when all the planets seem to align perfectly’
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
After all that angst and hardship came the sweetest ecstasy on surely one of the proudest days in the illustrious history of Norwich City.
Those autumnal struggles, the change of manager, the dashed hopes after a late tilt at automatic promotion, were all washed away at Wembley in a sea of vibrant yellow and green.
Images that will last a lifetime for those lucky enough to have a front row seat. The joy and the unbridled outpouring of emotion and electricity that accompanied Cameron Jerome's and Nathan Redmond's first-half strikes in three devastating minutes that rocked Middlesbrough to the Teessiders' foundations.
The thudding of John Ruddy's bar from Jelle Vossen's rising strike just seconds after Bradley Johnson had hammered the woodwork at the opposite end.
Russell Martin heading over after leaving his central defensive station when a third in the second half would have sealed Norwich's Premier League coronation.
All it did was simply delay the mother of all parties which exploded on the final whistle. Alex Neil was doused in champagne by his delighted players and carried shoulder high in front of the massed ranks like a conquering hero.
Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones embarked on a celebratory tour of the Wembley playing surface to share special moments with the men who carried the club's colours into battle.
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This was an iconic afternoon when all the planets seem to align perfectly, wrapped around the hugely impressive Neil, who meticulously plotted the downfall of a Middlesbrough foe that had inflicted two previous league defeats on the Canaries.
Norwich were fearless in possession and on the front foot from the opening skirmishes. That inner confidence and belief, instilled by Neil, flourished in the pressurised surroundings with so much at stake.
This was the £120m match, the match that could signal the break-up of this current Canaries' collective and spark a prolonged period of introspection.
Imagine the contrasting emotions if City had fallen at the final hurdle and faced another gruelling Championship season. Imagine the glee and the smugness across the border and much further afield as another club saw the Premier League recede further into the distance.
For all Neil's mesmeric impact, City would have faced a Herculean task to return next season. Now they can plot to share the same floor space as Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. The degree of difficulty remains tough, but the mood is now one of optimism, the future limitless, the prospects healthy.
Norwich's board deserve massive credit for the decision to appoint Neil after Neil Adams was unable to build on encouraging shoots.
City's squad, particularly those who were part of the decline some 12 months ago, which now feels more like a footballing lifetime, deserve every plaudit going for the character and the spirit to prevail on the final day of the domestic season.
Norwich's support deserve the eternal gratitude of those players and the board for remaining loyal in the faltering moments – not only last summer, but when initial promise crumbled to frustration.
This was a collective effort inside and outside the football club. Norwich had to learn tough lessons from the top down when they exited the top flight with such a bump. Now they must harness this momentum and ensure they are not back here again in the near future.
They have a generational chance again after squandering the last one to establish a strong club in the footsteps of a Swansea or a Stoke.
In Neil they have a figurehead with the charisma and the tactical nous to compete against the elite.
There is a renewed sense of purpose; a vibrancy and a youthful vigour embodied in the shape of the 33-year-old.
City's display at Wembley was a tribute to their manager. The Canaries were bold when Middlesbrough were hesitant, composed where Boro too often tried to force things and clinical in the defining moments when Aitor Karanka's men lacked the cutting edge they had ruthlessly displayed to sweep aside Brentford.
Neil made much play during the build-up of the battle-hardening properties City could harness after emerging from two titanic struggles against Ipswich. The manner in which they handled the pressure and the expectation was merely a continuation of how they managed to edge past their near neighbours. That aggregate win against the Blues can now rightly carve its niche in the pantheon of great Canaries' results; a fitting parallel to the heroics of Ken Brown's 1985 side.
This one deserves the same recognition. The scale of the celebrations after Martin held aloft the play-off trophy were a testament. There will be time enough over an abbreviated summer to worry about the Premier League and Norwich's latest bid to bridge the great divide.
For now, one should savour the magnificently controlled manner of their winning efforts at Wembley. A day that will live long in the memory.