Norwich City review of 2015
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Chief Norwich City correspondent Paddy Davitt looks back at a remarkable journey which took the Canaries and its supporters out of the doldrums and into the Premier League.
The sights and sounds of that glorious day at Wembley may be the abiding images of Norwich City's 2015. But it was a year that started in far from auspicious circumstances.
There was no pomp or ceremony or vibrant colours attached to the Canaries' miserable FA Cup exit at then League One Preston. That was a colourless, dreary, depressing afternoon which signalled the end for Neil Adams and unleashed the chain of events that brought Alex Neil to Carrow Road in his place.
Neil spoke eloquently and honestly in recognising his predecessor's achievements at the club's end-of-season dinner.
Norwich's Championship promotion success and encouraging return to the Premier League will rightly be packaged as Neil's triumph, but the Scot inherited a fruitful legacy. City may have exited the FA Cup at the first attempt and been toiling on the periphery of the Championship play-offs, but there was still much to thank Adams for in his player recruitment and those early-season foundations which Neil superbly embellished in his own inimitable style.
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Cameron Jerome's goals proved to be one of the major tenets in that remarkable promotion surge, capped by his opening strike at Wembley, but it is worth remembering Jerome was an Adams signing.
Neil brought in Tony Andreu from old club Hamilton and later Graham Dorrans on loan, but it was essentially the same players who carried the club on that glorious ascent. Neil's genius was his motivational powers and remarkable ability to instil his methods and his management in such an abbreviated period.
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That landmark opening league win at Bournemouth, when Jonny Howson's second-half dismissal was the signal for Neil to vacate his perch in the directors' box and join his men in the technical area, revealed so much about what was to come.
Neil's presence in the technical area galvanised a superbly resolute effort from the 10, not simply to resist the eventual champions and hold out for a battling draw, but to claim all three points when Jerome rifled home from long range.
The joyous outpouring in front of the delirious away support spoke volumes. After the angst and the turmoil, after the departure of Adams and by any measure the shock appointment of a 33-year-old who had guided unfashionable Accies to the upper reaches of the Scottish Premiership, was it any wonder that Cherries' victory marked a watershed?
There would still be moments of self-doubt along the way to Wembley, periods when an improbable surge for automatic promotion looked within their grasp and then frustratingly elusive, but underpinning it all was a strong bond between manager and players that convinced many supporters the Premier League beckoned.
Middlesbrough's 1-0 league win at Carrow Road in mid-April was one of those epic lows. That was the night City were effectively shunted down the play-off route and a reunion with the Teessiders on the biggest stage in the richest club game of them all.
But first Ipswich. Two glorious tussles wrapped around all the history and enmity that makes the East Anglian rivalry one of the fiercest. Neil had already presided over one victory, March's 2-0 success at Carrow Road and Bradley Johnson's hammer strike. The Scot knew then what it means in these parts, but magnify that by the tantalising prize at the end of two play-off semi-finals.
Portman Road was a nervy, first leg affair; Howson's clinical finish cancelled out by Paul Anderson's scrambled equaliser. The tremors could be felt back in Norfolk, but that was as good as it got for Mick McCarthy's side. Norwich had too much experience, too much class and too much nerve to prevail in the second leg. In any other year, those scenes at the final whistle, when thousands poured onto the pitch, would have been the iconic imagery.
But this was no ordinary year. David McNally said Norwich could have sold 60,000 Wembley tickets. The lucky few experienced a footballing carnival, a magnificently controlled, measured exhibition of football from Neil's men under the most extreme pressure. Boro were 2-0 down after 15 minutes, that Championship league double cold comfort as City claimed the laurels.
But in those moments of sweet ecstasy and fulfilment of a season's work came the realisation getting to the Premier League pales with trying to stay in it.
You could feel that lingering sense of excitement against Crystal Palace on the opening day of the new campaign. Norwich were denied what appeared a late equaliser when Jerome was penalised for dangerous play by a Football League official who failed his big audition. The Eagles added a third and delivered the first in a series of painful lessons regarding what it takes. Norwich and Neil have been vibrant and bold, but they have also looked hesitant and uncertain. The highs of Manchester United and that first away win at Sunderland have been tinged with heavy defeats at Newcastle and Tottenham. But City's festive haul underlines that character, that bond which we first saw at Bournemouth in Neil's first match at the helm remains stronger than ever.
Norwich have plenty of work ahead over the second half of the Premier League season to achieve their primary objective, but as they proved so memorably this year, they are up for the challenge.