Norwich City kept us in suspense until a stirring Wembley finale
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City bounced back to the Premier League at the first attempt, but that barely tells the story of an epic struggle. Chief Norwich City correspondent Paddy Davitt reflects on a memorable journey.
Those travelling supporters at Brentford's Griffin Park in September who broke into spontaneous chants of 'We've got our Norwich back' proved to be prophetic.
A campaign that started and ended with a Neil in charge was bound by a managerial transition which triggered none of the turbulence that all too easily threatens sustained progress.
Neil Adams departed the scene after an impressively assured fightback from relegation became mired in autumnal struggle.
Mike Phelan's arrival provided only temporary respite. An ignominious FA Cup exit at League One play-off winners Preston proved a watershed moment. Another followed with the capture of an unheralded and frankly unheard of young Scottish operator plying his trade well away from the spotlight at Hamilton.
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Alex Neil exuded confidence and an inner belief, when he was unveiled alongside chief executive David McNally ahead of a trip to Bournemouth, that immediately suggested this diminutive figure would not be overawed by the size of the opportunity.
Still, it required a leap of faith – even from the loyalists – to believe this 33-year-old could complete the job Adams had started.
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Perhaps the dramatic nature of City's 2-1 league win at the Cherries the following day, earned in such adverse conditions, was a portent of things to come. Norwich resisted the eventual champions and when they were reduced to 10 after Jonny Howson's red card found a way to prevail through Cameron Jerome's thumping hit; a mirror image of the strike he unleashed at Griffin Park which seemed to signal to all those in attendance City had shed any vestiges of a Premier League hangover.
But this is Norwich. Rarely is it so serene, so routine. The Canaries' rise and fall and now rise once more over recent times has been a triumph against the odds.
Few outside the club really felt City could follow League One glory with another Championship promotion under Paul Lambert's guidance. Fewer still that they could survive for two seasons before succumbing in desperate fashion. Little wonder Norwich swiftly receded as genuine Championship promotion contenders when they started to list after that early season promise unravelled.
Much of what unfolded so memorably in a run to Wembley that still retains a surreal element for many and may only truly sink in when the Premier League fixtures are published next month, was packaged around the mesmerising personality of Neil.
The Scot routinely prefers to fade into the background and let others take the acclaim. That is not a tactic, that is a character trait, which only endears him to those supporters he lifted from an uncertain future and pulled on a glorious journey that will take them back to Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and any number of glittering outposts next season.
The same corporate approach stands when assessing the contributions of the men who delivered.
Bradley Johnson rightly claimed the player-of-the-year crown after a rich seam of goalscoring that was impressive as much for its scale as its sheer quality. Cultured lobs from outside the penalty area against Watford or Blackburn competed with thunderous salvos at Reading and Brighton and the unerringly accurate finish which set Ipswich on the way to another derby defeat and catapulted Johnson firmly into the consciousness of those casting their votes.
Cameron Jerome could justifiably harbour a sense of grievance he failed to oust Johnson after 21 goals in all competitions. Wes Hoolahan at times over the run-in looked back to his very best. Nathan Redmond eclipsed the Irishman in the number of assists, adding that end product which can take the talented youngster to the next level and beyond. Jonny Howson made vital contributions, Seb Bassong underlined his value to the cause when Neil opted to end his first team exile, Alex Tettey emerged as an integral part of the Scot's masterplan once he had adapted to the rigours of Championship combat, on and on you could go through the ranks, but in reality it was the collective that propelled Norwich forward.
Neil forged a sense of purpose and a unity that unlocked the undoubted potential in a set of players who had seemingly lost their way.
City will need to harness that togetherness again to level the playing field when they embark on the next phase of their development. Norwich retained the majority of a squad who had operated in the Premier League for three seasons not only to get them back at the first attempt, but to ensure they avoid the growing pains that may hinder Bournemouth and Watford.
McNally made it clear as he looked out over the Wembley arch the morning after the Canaries' play-off victory there is a desire to learn from the bitter experience of their last top flight tilt. City will be better equipped on and off the pitch you suspect for having emerged the other side of a chastening episode.
When the euphoria eventually fades there will be an undeniable mood of optimism in its place. Norwich feels like a football club back on the up, a vibrant, confident entity that can bullishly prosper in the Premier League and in so doing dispel those negative currents from further afield who inevitably predict a swift return to a second tier that left a bruising imprint on the Canaries.
But ask any of those privileged few who enjoyed an enthralling play-off final victory at Wembley and they will tell you the same thing; they've got their Norwich back.