Norwich City must stand firm in the face of Championship mind games
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City appear to be engaged in psychological warfare masquerading as a Championship fight to the finish.
If the pay-off to a tortuous trip to Bolton was the sublime stoppage time postscript from Gary Hooper's almost balletic finish, and the seismic shockwave it triggered to City's promotion rivals, then the pain is worth it.
Hooper was engulfed by delirious team-mates set against the backdrop of those travelling supporters who have been here before perhaps, but that makes the ride no less thrilling. It was an intoxicating image in what may prove the defining moment in Norwich's season.
Alex Neil punched the air like a prize fighter about to enter the ring as the combustible Neil Lennon stood deflated just the other side of the fourth official. Everywhere you looked around Bolton's atmospheric arena there was a scene to capture the madness of surely the best finale the Championship has served up for many a season.
Norwich found a way to win when it looked like they had squandered their right to automatic promotion, just at the point Watford and Middlesbrough were closing out league victories elsewhere.
Imagine the dejection when both discovered how perilously close City had come to the precipice. Now it's all to play for again. The circus moves on to Elland Road tomorrow and the attendant sub-plots contained therein.
City found a foe as bold and as brave as them at Bolton. Lennon retained the defensive three that served the Trotters so well in hammering Cardiff on Easter Monday to accommodate not just Eidur Gudjohnsen but Emile Heskey in front of a four-man midfield.
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Neil was equally innovative, deploying Alex Tettey in the vicinity of Bolton's Icelandic talisman and narrowing the focus of his own creative midfield unit behind Cameron Jerome. It was a complex, tactical battle that in the end was decided by the visitors' collective desire and an obdurate urge to prevail; a dogged refusal to accept on this afternoon at this key point of the season City would have to concede ground.
Tempting though it is to seek answers in fate or other ephemeral forces working in Norwich's favour, the Canaries were indebted to Neil's gambler's instinct.
The Scot is ferociously forensic in his meticulous approach to the task in hand against each new opponent, but there is a fearlessness perhaps rooted in his relative youth as much as his character which retains a flexibility to Norwich's outlook.
Lewis Grabban and then Hooper were unleashed as Neil cashed in his attacking chips to flank Jerome in the pursuit of one decisive, late intervention.
It says everything that Neil and his squad had coped admirably with Grabban's injury absence in recent weeks to continue hunting down their main promotion rivals.
Grabban is undeniably a pivotal figure for Neil, who sees much to admire in his ability to knit the play outside the box, allied to his predatory instincts.
The former Bournemouth striker's return to the first team fold ahead of schedule is another facet that adds to the growing belief which is propelling City towards their final destination.
Hooper may not retain the same place in Neil's affections but he remains a cold-eyed assassin.
There was only one man you wanted to anticipate Jerome's flick from Seb Bassong's raking ball before contorting his body to cushion a looping right-footed strike around the rapidly-advancing Adam Bogdan with the requisite weight to drop underneath the bar. That was the game, that was the final salvo and it was neither fate nor fortune ensuring Hooper was the central figure in such a dramatic last act.
The celebrations in the immediate aftermath and at the end were tinged with relief. Alex Tettey collapsed to the turf as others rushed to congratulate the match-winner, perhaps struggling to comprehend the enormity of Hooper's flourish. Or maybe it was just sheer exhaustion.
The romantics may wallow in the beauty of such a stirring victory, but the pragmatic Neil was already preaching it may take the same again at Elland Road before he had departed this corner of the north-west.
The cold reality is Norwich's grip on second place remains weak. Watford's failure to put more than two goals past relegation certainties Millwall at the New Den preserved City's slender margin of superiority. For their part, Bournemouth must go again after some seemed willing to anoint them following Friday's nervy 2-0 league win at Brighton.
On reflection, Jamar Loza's 98th-minute leveller at Huddersfield last month in salvaging a crucial point for the Canaries was merely the beginning of the end.
Norwich found a way back into that contest when James Vaughan appeared to have inflicted a damaging defeat. So it proved here against another side with seemingly nothing at stake.
Neil and his players provided fresh, irrefutable proof they are battle-hardened and resolute, with the star quality to make the difference, but it will still require all that and more to prevail over the final furlong.