Relegation is a terrible thing for a football club, but if a club never goes down, their fans never experience the joy of going up. Now Wembley has resounded to rapturous cries of “yellow, yellow” as the Canaries of Norwich City, relegated a year ago, flew back to the top flight.
Two goals in the opening 15 minutes, from Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond, gave them an advantage they never looked like relinquishing against a Middlesbrough side who had the belief knocked out of them by that early double blow. City’s success completed an extraordinary double for the Norwich manager, Alex Neil, who, 12 months ago to the day, led Hamilton Academicals into the Scottish top flight through a play-off final.
At 33, Neil is so young he was on the pitch at Easter Road last year as Accies beat Hibernian, having brought himself on as a substitute. Here, he had to settle for metaphorically kicking every ball from within Wembley’s technical area. Being unable to influence events directly will have made the tension worse, but the reality was this year’s promotion was a cruise compared to last. Then Hamilton needed a last-minute leveller before winning on penalties.
This was a triumph that will be celebrated by the other 19 Premier League clubs, who will now share three seasons of parachute payments Norwich no longer need, benefiting each to the tune of £2m-plus (which is why this match is worth around £80m to Norwich, not £120m). Roy Hodgson will be pleased, too, for it takes Redmond and John Ruddy back into the elite.
Ten of the Norwich side played for them in the Premier League last season, the exception, Jerome, did so for Crystal Palace. None of the Boro team did, and only Dean Whitehead did the season before, for Stoke City.
The difference in class and experience showed. For much of the game Norwich were sharper, more composed and more polished. They even had the edge in celebrities. Never mind Delia Smith and Stephen Fry, Boro did not even have anyone in the Royal Box as well known as Ed Balls. In the cheap seats it was more even, both sets of supporters giving their all. Even the Boro fans who had taken over Trafalgar Square on Sunday night found a new source of energy, at least until City’s control silenced them.
Midfield was the key. Adam Clayton and Grant Leadbitter were too often chasing shadows against Wes Hoolahan, Jonny Howson, Alexander Tettey and, tucking in on the left, Bradley Johnson. That ensured a steady supply of ball to Redmond, while Boro’s most likely matchwinner, Patrick Bamford, had to live off scraps.
Nevertheless, from one such scrap, Jelle Vossen almost opened the scoring in the 10th minute. A careless Sébastien Bassong clearance fell to the Dutchman 25 yards out but his volley cannoned off the crossbar. That, however, only balanced out a similar strike from Johnson a minute earlier, the midfielder hitting the woodwork from the edge of the box after another half-cleared cross.
The near full house was still digesting these close shaves when Norwich cut through. Whitehead and Daniel Ayala looked to have dealt neatly with a long ball forward when the latter tried to be too clever and was robbed by Jerome. Ayala, despite being here long enough to know an English ref would never agree, claimed a foul while Jerome went on to beat Dimi Konstantopoulos at the near post.
Ayala, who joined Boro from Norwich last year after failing to impress in Norfolk, was aghast. George Friend tried to lift his mood but three minutes later was in despair himself. After Martin Olsson won possession, a flowing 17-pass Norwich move was capped by Redmond gliding easily past Friend on to Steven Whittaker’s pass to drill a shot past Konstantopoulos.
Teams have come back from two-down in a play-off final as recently as Rotherham last year, but not often. Boro looked so shellshocked they did well to reach half-time without conceding again. They beat Norwich home and away in the Championship this year but suddenly it was hard to work out how.
Boro needed inspiration. With Bamford shackled and Vossen booked for diving as he claimed a penalty, the only hope came from Albert Adomah. The winger is one of those players managers look at and think, “I can do something with him”. Then they get frustrated by his inconsistency. Quick and leggy, Adomah would be a dangerous impact player in the top flight. Here it was the Ghanaian’s threat that drove Boro forward after the break and kept Norwich fans from daring to celebrate early. But his stream of crosses never fell to the right player.
With City content to sit back, set-pieces became the most likely source of goals, but the finishing was poor. First, Russell Martin headed a corner over when he could have settled the tie. Then an unmarked Ayala headed another into Lewis Grabban’s body when he could have given Boro hope.
On the day his mentor was parading the Premier League trophy around the streets of Chelsea, Aitor Karanka was thus denied the chance to pit his wits against Jose Mourinho next season, but Boro’s progress suggests they will be strong contenders next year.
For Norwich, as well as they played yesterday, a season of struggle is the fear. This was largely the same team that won one point from seven matches when going down a year ago – minus Robert Snodgrass and Leroy Fer but plus Jerome, who scored only twice in 20 starts for Palace.
Neil faced a similar challenge with Hamilton and they were third in the Scottish Premiership when he left in January. If he can sustain his excellence, and City strengthen judiciously, they may be able to end their yo-yo status.
That is for the future. Last night was about celebrating the present. Perhaps the biggest cheer came when Delia Smith crossed the turf, her high heels doubtless leaving the groundsman wincing, to lift the trophy with husband and co-owner Michael Wynn-Jones, finally expunging the memory of last year.
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