Glenn Roeder's worst nightmare unfolded at Carrow Road tonight – a vastly-improved Canary performance undone by one, horrible long throw moment.
For having played all the brighter football all night long, in the end it was a Rory Delap missile into the near post that gave Stoke City their 1-0 victory as Mamady Sidibe rose above to two markers and lifted the softest of back headers over a horribly stranded David Marshall.
Classic, direct Stoke; classic, sucker punch.
Norwich would have chances to level; big chances. Jamie Cureton would see Carlo Nash spread hinself all-too well to deny his far post chance; substitute Ched Evans would direct a free header all-too softly to the keeper's left. The best – or worst – chance fell to Cureton deep into five minutes of stoppage time. A horrible, four-yard stab wide as panic briefly reigned in the Potters box.
But it all proved too little, too late – Delap's delivery from the throw-in had done all the damage and Norwich's wobbles results-wise continued.
As the two teams run out for this evening's Championship clash, you could see exactly what Roeder had in mind when he talked about this league being increasingly the preserve of the big boys.
To a man, the Potters appeared to enjoy a two or three-inch advantage, with midfielder Salif Diao towering over both Mark Fotheringham and Matty Pattison. Dublin looked roughly on a par, but still gave away a couple of inches in height to Leon Cort. Jason Shackell would concede the game's first free-kick after three minutes as he wrestled Mamady Sidibe to the floor in front of the dug-outs. Literally.
Before and after, however, and the Canaries were offering moments of early promise. Twice Jon Otsemobor – restored at right-back after Juan Velasco's Ricoh nightmares – broke with pace and purpose, while come the 11th minute and Messrs Croft, Fotheringham and Bertrand were breaking en masse only for the latter to curl his final cross away and through an empty six-yard box.
Moments later and Croft was again breaking into space; his first-time cross needed a big, clearing header from a back-tracking Cort as Cureton and Dublin lurked. It was all reasonably bright and breezy – due reward for the supporters' early volume.
Stoke, by contrast, were sloppy and disorganised; keeper Carlo Nash would throw the ball straight out of play on the 15th minute – much to Tony Pulis' fury on the touchline. Liam Lawrence and Diao would leave balls short as the Canaries kept their foot on the gas and the ball swirling through the Potters box.
A twisting volley from Cureton slammed against Cort's forehead in front of goal. Not that the Stoke defender knew too much about it. The 24th minute brought Stoke's first half-chance, Sidibe guiding a distant header well wide as the rain suddenly swept down with a stormy vengeance.
As the half-hour mark loomed, Stoke starting to wind their game up. Rory Delap launched a missile at the near post which Cort followed into the N&P stand, while a deep Lawrence corner in the 29th minute would need a big, clearing header from Dublin as Cort again lurked.
Croft would look to squeeze his way down the right flank; Camara would clear hastily at the second attempt after Sidibe left Otsemobor trailing. Norwich's early dominance was starting to fade. Now it was an even contest where one mistake could prove costly.
Fotheringham unpacked one of his party pieces as he span away from Delap and just failed to thread Croft through. It was a neat, tidy moment of football from one of the smallest players on the pitch. Cureton would bring Nash into play as he latched onto a deep and early David Marshall kick as he swept a 20-yarder straight into the keeper's mid-riff. Otsemobor would drive wide with an ambitious, low 30-yarder.
At the other end, Carl Dickinson would launch a hopeful cross into the wind and would watch, with growing hope, as it swirled onto Marshall's crossbar before drifting away to safety. A closer call than many might have liked as the half-time whistle blew. Whether the next 45 minutes would see Master Luke Daley make his first Canary appearance offered just one more potential twist to this evening's tale.
Fotheringham kept up his bright night's work with the first chance of the second period as he picked up Cort's miscued clearance before sending a whipped, dipper goalward. Tight on Nash's left ankle, the Stoke keeper came agonisingly close to spilling it over the goalline only to grab the ball gratefully at the second attempt. At the other end and Delap would have a loud penalty appeal waved away after a last-ditch tackle from Pattison nicked both ball and ankle.
Stoke would have more joy in the 58th minute – and from the most predictable of roots, to boot.
Delap wound himself up for his big throw and launched it low and arcing towards the near post where Sidibe rose between two yellow shirts. His little back flick found Marshall caught between a rock and a hard place – either he comes and punshes or he stays and saves. In the end, he did neither and the ball looped gently over his head and on into the net. It was a goal to send the watching Roeder into a fury. No surprise to find him swiftly down on the touchline.
Shackell raised the spirits again with a thumping great tackle to slam the door straight in Richard Cresswell's face.
The Canaries, in fairness, did their bit to try and claw their way back into the contest. Substitute Ched Evans drilled a 72nd minute effort straight at Nash before Cureton came even closer.
Evans' flick found Cureton alone on the far post. His chest down was smart enough; his finish over Nash was, however, too close to the keeper as the Potters No1 spread himself well to deny the Canary striker. With Croft and crowd in full cry, Evans was the next to test Nash' reactions and Roeder's patience, guiding a free, 15-yard header softly down to the keeper's left with the width of the goal to aim at.
That 'Stoke special' was looking all set to ruin Roeder's night; the long throw that he had long warned of, being the architect of their latest downfall.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Marshall; Otsemobor, Camara (Evans, 69 mins), Pearce, Shackell; Croft, Fotheringham, Pattison, Bertrand; Dublin, Cureton. Subs (not used): Gilks, Gibbs, Spillane, Evans, Daley.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Nash; Griffin, Cort, Riggott, Dickinson; Lawrence, Diao (Fuller, 52 mins), Delap, Pugh; Sidibe, Cresswell. Subs (not used): Simonsen, Shawcross, Gallagher, Wilkinson, Fuller.
Man of the Match: Lee Croft.