Thirty years after Norwich City lifted the Milk Cup – their only major honour and the reason why Ipswich supporters love to jibe about the relative emptiness of their trophy cabinet – the Canaries will return to Wembley Stadium for the Championship play-off final against Middlesbrough a week on Sunday hoping to grab the keys to a £120million-plus treasure chest.
The Norfolk side won both meetings against their deadly rivals in the regulation league season and their superiority eventually emerged again yesterday on an afternoon when nerves were shredded and East Anglian passions stoked like never before.
The home team were particularly inhibited by the uniqueness of the occasion – they termed it the biggest Old Farm derby of all time – in a mundane first half lifted by the noise and the anticipation of the reward on offer for the victors. Alex Neil, the inspirational Scotsman who answered jibes of “Alex who?” on his appointment in January by guiding Norwich to a run of 16 wins in 24 games with only three defeats, got into his team at the break and the difference showed.
In common with the other offensive talents wearing yellow, Wes Hoolahan had been shackled by Ipswich’s intense pressing game in the opening 45 minutes but he made decisive use of the space which opened up for him early in the second half, releasing Nathan Redmond whose shot was handled by Christophe Berra on the line.
The inevitable red card for the Ipswich defender was followed by Hoolahan’s cool conversion from the spot. Carrow Road wiped the sweat from its collective brow and relaxed for the first time on a day the folks in these parts will never forget.
But only for 10 minutes, the time it took for the 10 men to fashion an unlikely equaliser. John Ruddy was slow to respond to Daryl Murphy’s nod down from a corner and Tommy Smith, Berra’s partner at the heart of the Ipswich rearguard, sidestepped him to score.
Game back on but the momentum remained with Neil’s team who were ruthless in exploiting their numerical advantage. They were flying now on both flanks, looking much more like the team who had come so close to automatic promotion with only the home defeat by Middlesbrough two weeks before the end of the campaign interrupting their progress.
From Martin Olsson’s firmly struck cross-shot, Bartosz Bialkowski beat it out, the ball eventually spilling out to Jonny Howson who set up Redmond for the second goal.
It was hard to see Ipswich coming back a third time in the tie and it was no surprise when Redmond cut open their defence to enable Cameron Jerome to roll the ball past Bialkowski as the keeper advanced for his 20th of the season.
A Wembley appearance is something special for Delia Smith’s club to savour but Neil insists there is no point being there if you’re not going to win.
Asked about his previous Wembley experience he answered: “None. I was saying to the players before the game that actual opportunities to go and play at Wembley don’t come around that often. We are there now and I’m looking forward to that challenge and hoping it’s a successful one.
“It was important we stood up to the physical battle at the start and I put Hoolahan and Redmond in the team to give us that bit of quality further up the pitch. I’m pleased they both contributed to get us the penalty and the red card which was a huge turning point in the game.”
Mick McCarthy said: “The game hinged on two penalty decisions. We should have had one in the first half when [Teddy] Bishop was brought down and then with 10 men we were unlikely to win. I’m immensely proud of them, they have been fantastic all season.”
Norwich’s League Cup triumph in 1985 came through a single goal which diverted fortuitously off a Sunderland defender’s chest. They will settle for something similar this time round against another north-east opposition on the big stage.
A rail strike called for that day threatens to make it a nightmare journey for both sets of fans but they won’t worry about that unduly as they eye the Premier League prize and all those pound notes. Boro won the game at the Riverside 4-0 as well as the return game in Carrow Road but Norwich, looking for an immediate return to the promised land, will believe it is a case of third time lucky.
Norwich: (4-4-1-1) Ruddy; Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Olsson; Redmond, Tettey, Howson, Johnson (Elliott Bennett, 83); Hoolahan (Dorrans, 74); Jerome (Hooper, 83).
Ipswich: (4-4-2) Bialkowski, Chambers, Smith, Berra, Mings; Anderson (Hunt, 83), Skuse, Bru (Tabb, 71), Bishop (McGoldrick, 71); Sears, Murphy.
Referee: Roger East
Man of the Match: Hoolahan (Norwich)
Match rating: 7/10