Norwich City strive to create a new derby legacy
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Bathed in sunshine Carrow Road was the backdrop to a carnival on a landmark occasion against Fulham. The next time Norwich City's players and fans reconvene it will be a seething cauldron.
Rarely can a Canaries' victory on home soil have felt at times a secondary consideration to the twists and turns unfolding around the country as the minor play-off places were finally decided.
Central to that plot hinged the fate of Ipswich, who looked set to enjoy a far more comfortable afternoon before confirming their participation in the mother of all East Anglian derbies, when they took an early lead at Blackburn.
Derby's implosion at home to lowly Reading effectively hauled the Blues over the line, after Blackburn hit back for victory at Ewood Park, but the heat from Brentford and Wolves will have induced a sickly sensation for Mick McCarthy, his Town players and their travelling support.
City had no such dramas to contend with after the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion was confirmed by Bournemouth's win earlier in the week. But this was still an emphatic statement once Bradley Johnson eased himself to the front of the stage for his latest command performance.
Johnson was deservedly crowned player-of-the-year prior to kick-off and then proceeded to underline the reasons for his coronation. The abrasive midfielder has added a genuine goal threat and attacking thrust to the honest industry and endeavour which had framed his Norwich career up until this season.
That thumping left-footed strike that helped consign Ipswich to a fourth consecutive derby defeat perhaps tops his showreel, but there was the majestically cultured finishes against Blackburn and Watford in those early weeks of nascent promise, and the vitally important goals at Ewood Park and Brighton on the run for home.
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Johnson has emerged as a potent symbol of resistance following relegation. Norwich may have lost out to Watford by virtue of one league win in the final reckoning, but there was no sense of any lingering hangover once Gary Hooper picked out the unmarked midfielder to slam the hosts in front.
A second in stoppage time sealed a first win over Fulham since March 1986, before Johnson completed a hat-trick of sorts in bizarre fashion when he guided Ross McCormack's inswinging free-kick beyond John Ruddy.
It mattered little in the final analysis. Fulham, for the most part, were compliant but there was enough urgency over the entire piece to sate Alex Neil's demands to embark on the defining phase of the Canaries' season firmly on the front foot.
Elliott Bennett was deployed in an attacking full-back role that increasingly appears a natural fit for his energy and athleticism. Bennett's urgings were a marked feature of the lull prior to Johnson's latest decisive intervention.
Gary O'Neil compensated seamlessly for the absence of Alex Tettey to offer a timely reminder, should his manager require one, Norwich have a player in their ranks who knows exactly what is required now after his success with QPR at Wembley 12 months ago.
Hooper's guile and willingness to occupy the Cottagers' towering centre backs was another positive sign with Lewis Grabban suspended for both legs against Ipswich.
Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe and Graham Dorrans were introduced in late cameos to protect Wes Hoolahan and Jonny Howson for two fixtures which will define the short term trajectories of these neighbours and may filter East Anglian rivalry for decades to come.
City's 1985 League Cup success will forever be embellished by the knowledge they overcame Ipswich in the semi-finals. Neil's Norwich have been presented with the same tantalising prospect.
Every pointer ticks in the Canaries' favour. City finished eight points and three places clear of the Blues after achieving another emphatic league double. Neil is unbeaten on his travels since arriving in these parts and City's Fulham cruise demonstrated the depth to his squad but such reassuring factors will count for precious little when Norwich emerge into a bear pit at Portman Road this Saturday lunchtime.
The build-up will feel excruciatingly long over the coming days for those inside and outside the respective camps; the fury and the ferocity fanned by the growing realisation of what is at stake.
Within the maelstrom and the fractiousness this outcome hinges on who can handle the hype and the suffocating pressure; which players and management teams embrace the expectation and which club stays in the present and forgets about the tantalising prize on the horizon.
City's regional hegemony in recent times should only inject a greater frenzy and desperation to Town's latest efforts.
Norwich must stand firm in the difficult moments and be bold and bullish when the opportunity arises to impose themselves in Suffolk. There is nothing to suggest the likes of Neil, Johnson or any of his team mates will take a backward step.