Tribal spoils lead Norwich City to Wembley
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City retained the bragging rights with the most delicious of derby victories, but they should thank their bitter enemies for the perfect Wembley preparations.
Financial reward, not neighbourly squabbles, is now the ultimate prize when Alex Neil leads out a City team at the home of football against Middlesbrough next week for the first time in three decades, with a place in the Premier League at stake.
But it will surely fail to eclipse the hype, the epic scale, the gut-wrenching tension or suffocating pressure of two clashes against Ipswich that leave a rich legacy in the annals of East Anglian football rivalry.
Mick McCarthy, his players and those long-suffering Blues' supporters must forever be reminded of their inadequacies over two games bound together by one defining moment. That sense of loss can only be magnified should City complete the job, at the expense of the Teessiders, and in so doing set the old foes on radically different trajectories for the foreseeable future.
Christophe Berra's instinctive decision to handle Nathan Redmond's goalbound shot on his own line curtailed the Scot's involvement, before Wes Hoolahan calmly rolled City in front, after an opening period which proved just as fraught and just as uncomfortable for the Canaries as the first leg in Suffolk.
Tommy Smith's scrambled leveller was a poisonous twist to the plot but Norwich had too much class and too much quality to profit – allied to their numerical advantage – as Town wilted in the glorious sunshine.
Berra's rashness did not decide this Championship play-off semi-final; it merely tilted the scales in favour of the favourites and a multi-million pound squad at the expense of the underdogs and the budget boys – to frame this duel in the pre-match narrative popular across the border.
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Norwich's ability to hold their nerve provided the steely backbone underpinning this sweet derby win. The hosts' were pummelled in both legs by a fearless Ipswich squad who genuinely fancied their chances of upsetting the odds and who set about Neil's men with savage intent.
City rocked at times, particularly with Daryl Murphy a constant aerial threat as Town pounded away in pursuit of set piece opportunities. But Norwich held firm.
That inability to impose their more refined style on proceedings until the intense tempo dropped inevitably triggered palpable anxiety amongst a home support desperate for any sign of encouragement. Norwich fans descended on their spirtual home ready to play a full part in a game that for decades to come will have been attended by most in the city, Norfolk and beyond, such was the magnitude of the occasion.
Neil sensed frustration in sections of the Carrow Road support, and with his own players during the interval, but the Scot simply urged his men to focus, to ignore the external factors, and to hold true to his course.
That takes enormous self-awareness and character after an opening spell when Ipswich's industry had blunted Norwich's creativity; that willingness to retain total faith in your preparations and your planning in the midst of such a maelstrom and with Wembley tantalisingly on the horizon.
Berra's intervention so early in the second period altered the dynamic but given Neil's unstinting belief in his principles and the quality of those under his command one suspects the Canaries would have found a way to prevail without the central defender's exit and the resulting spot kick.
Neil has set a defiant tone since his January arrival and bar the odd lapse those players have responded. The man himself was quick to merge into the background again shortly after the final whistle as he praised the collective efforts of those from top to bottom. Yet it is the Scot's inner confidence which appears to have seeped through a club which during those autumnal struggles seemed to lose focus.
The Norwich manager has tweaked with the personnel at his disposal but it is the mindset which has hardened; the sense of unity and a clarity of purpose emerging to attain the only goal that matters on a road which started at Wolves and deserves a fitting epitaph at Wembley.
The absence of any widespread triumphalism from the home players at the final whistle was telling, as supporters swarmed onto the playing surface and tension subsided into sheer relief.
Neil and those he leads know the job is incomplete. To inflict the cruellest cut of all on their cross-border rivals will be devalued historically should City face two more league tussles next season against McCarthy's men.
Ipswich is a thrilling episode that must recede swiftly. It is the past and it counts for little when the Canaries grace the new Wembley for the first time in a matter of days.