Photo Gallery: Euphoria as Norwich City end season in style at Manchester City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City had the final word on a Premier League season that periodically threatened to overwhelm but may herald a prosperous future.
When the manager left the pitch at Craven Cottage with his head bowed after a chastening opening day defeat to Fulham the road ahead looked arduous. City took plenty of heavy blows in the ensuing months, but the euphoric celebrations on the final whistle in front of the travelling support at the Etihad encapsulated how far the Canaries have travelled in the intervening period.
Norwich had produced under intense pressure to secure their Premier League status against West Brom. Norwich produced here once again with a freedom of expression and a vibrancy that brought a merited win at the home of former champions; a fortress scaled only once previously this season by their bitter city rivals. The hosts' were no less lacklustre than the Baggies for long periods until Jonny Howson's exquisite weaving solo finish sparked them into a belated late riposte, but it would have taken the rudderless Blues at their most fearless to subdue a Norwich side who delivered when it mattered most at the climax of a testing campaign.
The Canaries' final league position and points tally mask the struggle it took since the turn of this year to build on that club-record Premier League unbeaten run. But at the Etihad they produced irrefutable proof the home romp over the Baggies was not an anomaly. It was another tantalising glimpse of the possibilities ahead should Hughton and the club's hierarchy recruit judiciously over the summer recess. The current squad were much-maligned as a winter of promise subsided into sporadic spring progress but if the end of a nine-month campaign is the only reference point at which to pass judgement, Norwich clearly have the resources to compete with vast swathes of the Premier League. If Hughton's brief was consolidation, the final flourish offered an intoxicating teaser of what the next stage of the club's development could bring. The Canaries achieved this notable win minus both recognised first choice centre backs in the injured Michael Turner and rested player-of-the-season Sebastien Bassong.
Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero all failed to register. Only young English midfielder Jack Rodwell was able to pierce a well-drilled backline in front of John Ruddy. Rodwell's brace cancelled out rapier thrusts despatched by Anthony Pilkington and Grant Holt, but Wes Hoolahan was the fulcrum. The Irishman's effervescent promptings evoked memories of a similarly dominant imprint left on last season's entertaining trip to Arsenal. Hughton has talked candidly about the need to evolve from the defensive strictures that characterised Norwich's season and Hoolahan remains a catalyst for change.
One turn and trigger pass for Robert Snodgrass freed the Scottish international to dip inside and drag a left footed strike at Joe Hart before he evaded the imposing Yaya Toure to craft a pass Grant Holt dragged wide of Hart's far post.
Norwich were brash and bold in possession. Manchester City looked stilted, Toure and Rodwell were laboured. Hoolahan's persistence shovelled the ball into Pilkington's path who guided it past Hart from 16 yards. Norwich's lead barely lasted long enough for a throaty rendition of their terrace anthem before Rodwell lashed beyond Ruddy. Hart took evasive action to push over Snodgrass' accurate free kick from 20 yards as Hughton's men probed for an instant riposte. Aguero then emerged from the home dugout for a gentle warm-up. It was almost a cruel gesture which served only to underline the gulf in resources between these two clubs. The Argentine has proved a troublesome conundrum for Norwich since their return to the Premier League, but his introduction five minutes after the interval merely sparked the visitors into concerted action. Bradley Johnson's snap header lacked the power to trouble Hart. Hughton's visible annoyance when the midfielder's lack of precision failed to spring Pilkington shortly afterwards underlined Norwich's belief they could prevail in such difficult terrain. Hoolahan's vision and then the execution freed Snodgrass who guided a ball towards the back post for the predatory Holt to slot from close range. The Blues' responded in a painful echo of the opening period. Rodwell's driven finish from a tight angle was precise, but the athletic burst to leave Steven Whittaker trailing perhaps exposed the Scot's lack of regular first team activity.
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Norwich could have succumbed at that point and taken consolation in their valiant efforts. Most would have expected Manchester City's glittering array of world class talent and elevated status to tip the balance. But to surrender is never a charge you can level at Hughton's Norwich. Right from that humbling by the Thames back in August and every low point since they have responded emphatically. Howson's match-winner was a goal fit to grace any occasion – a fitting epitaph to a Premier League season that routinely tested the Canaries. His thunderous hit against West Brom had put the seal on survival, but this magnificent individual effort was a stylish encore as he burst confidently from inside his own half past four retreating Blues defenders before a cool roll under the advancing Hart.
Norwich's collective strength may well have laid the foundations for a third consecutive season of Premier League, but in men like Howson and Hoolahan they also possess rich talent. The future feels limitless.