A 73rd minute penalty from ex-Town hero Jon Walters ripped two, potentially priceless points out of Norwich’s hands this afternoon as a ten-man Stoke headed home with a point from this afternoon’s 1-1 draw.
Bradley Johnson’s 56th minute header had put Chris Hughton’s men in the driving seat only for momentum and belief to seep away – eventually resulting in a Stoke leveller after an over-enthusiastic challenge from skipper Sebastien Bassong.
Even then opportunity would still knock as Walters saw red in the 77th minute following an ill-tempered clash with Alexander Tettey.
That brought a double substitution as the Canary chief chased a winner with both Gary Hooper and Johan Elmander slung up top at the expense of the mis-firing Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
Neither got much of a sight on goal and as the final, five minutes of added-on time played out without too much threat of note, so the boos ran out at the final whistle. City remain four points clear of the relegation zone, but after that home win against Spurs their momentum is slowing.
Potentially fatally as those final, four formidable games of the season loom ever larger on the horizon.
For one of the bigger games in Norwich City’s recent history, boss Hughton had opted to place his faith in van Wolfswinkel again as Hooper found himself relegated to the bench. That was a bold move; that wouldn’t reap its reward.
The reward for Hoolahan and his early goal at Villa Park was another starting spot just off the Dutchman. The biggest absentee remained Leroy Fer whose athleticism and frame in the middle of the park would be sorely missed against a Potters side that was never short of muscularity.
Fitting, therefore, that today was ‘Duncan Day’; one, big-hearted Scotsman who would have laughed in the face of Peter Crouch.
It was also a character question that the Canaries had all-too often failed to answer this season; there were certainly all-too many faint hearts on show in the Midlands last weekend as City collapsed in a heap following Hoolahan’s opener.
This weekend and all concerned could have sorely done with the lift of an early strike – not least the £8.5m van Wolfswinkel whose personal miseries in front of goal this season have come to sum up much of Norwich’s woes.
Just after the half hour and Robert Snodgrass would whip an inviting cross in that the Dutchman could only head wide of its intended target. For now, fortune wasn’t favouring him; he was getting little change out of Ryan Shawcross.
In between time, Snodgrass looked City’s best route to goal as the Canary winger picked and probed his way through the Potters defence as the first-half wore on.
In the end, however, not much dropped for the home side in front of goal.
And what had always been billed something of a tight, ugly clash with all-too much at stake was proving just that. This was anyone’s to lose. The biggest question as the half-time whistle blew would be whether or not anyone – on either side – could deliver that one piece of genuine Premier League quality to turn the contest this way or that.
The smart money would be on a ‘No!’ – a goalless draw might suit Mark Hughes’ purposes away from home, but for Hughton’s Canaries the clock was firmly ticking; games fast running out as the season reached its agonising climax.
For with many of the bottom six playing against each other, the squeeze was going to be on come five o’clock. How Norwich could do with Hoolahan’s 52nd minute effort being fumbled into his goal by a hesitant Stoke keeper and not – eventually – clawed out.
It offered hope, at least.
Someone, however, somewhere would need to take a risk; to gamble. And as ever with Hughton’s much-maligned management, was that in their DNA? To take that extra step forward? Throw that additional body forward?
When the breakthrough came – as it did in the 56th minute – it was as simple as they come.
Johnson had all the time and the space in the world to direct a Snodgrass delivery a firm header into the bottom left-hand corner. Job done. City were heading north; making home advantage count.
On 67 minutes, Hughton laid himself open for abuse with another controversial substitution as Hoolahan made way for a fit again Jonny Howson. The argument would be that the Canaries were stepping back into a shell; pulling the wagons all too tight when the game was just starting to open up as Stoke were forced to chase a leveller.
The counter argument would be that Howson’s wise head might organise a defensive midfield line that much better – and he was no slouch going forward. Should the home side hang on to their lead, the manager will have made his point; the three points would be his.
Alas fate had an alternative ending as Bassong ploughed all-too heavily into the back of substitute John Guidetti and Walters did the rest – lifting his spot-kick high and to the left of John Ruddy.
Now the message-boards would have their chance; Norwich had gone into their shell too early. And had paid the penalty. Literally.
Walters’ exit five minutes later hardly helped Hughton’s cause; nor would the fact that one TV commentator would make Hoolahan his Man of the Match.
Because the one person who might have been able to unpick a stubborn Potters’ defence for a second time had gone. As had two more, priceless points.