A moment of magic from City favourite Darren Huckerby almost gave the Canaries a richly-deserved point from this afternoon's trip to the West County – and almost threw another large spanner into Bristol City's promotion works. Almost.
A goal down to Dele Adebola's 41st minute opener, Norwich continued to park their tanks all over the Robins' front lawn after the break and finally earned their reward as Huckerby pounced on a mistake by Bradley Orr and sent a glorious, curling shot inside the far post.
That, in theory, should have been the basis for at least a point on the back of Norwich's best away performance yet under Glenn Roeder. But, oh no…
With second-half substitute Lee Croft pulling the home side this way and that, Canary keeper David Marshall barely touched the ball after the break as Bristol's promotion nerves got the better of them.
Or rather right up to the third minute of injury time when chaos erupted as Steve Brooker headed an ill-deserved winner home. For the fact remained that referee Andy D'Urso called a big handball wrong – penalising Lee Croft ahead of Jamie McCombe. Needless to say, the Robins score from the free-kick; City No2 Lee Clark is sent to the stands for his protests.
Final winner and endless squall apart, the only dark cloud on the horizon was a serious-looking hamstring pull for Maceo Rigters little more than 10 minutes after his second-half arrival. Otherwise, there was barely a bad performance in sight; Jason Shackell stood firm at the back; Mark Fotheringham pulled all the midfield strings and Huckerby did his thing.
Right up until that third minute of injury time….
Listen to any of the locals ahead of this afternoon's game and without a win in their last five games, this was – by universal consent – “a must win” game for the Robins if their dreams of back-to-back promotions into the Premiership were ever to be achieved.
Losing 2-1 at Severn-side neighbours Cardiff City hardly eased the anxious mood; Gary Johnson's response was to swing the axe and make five changes to his starting line-up. Lee Trundle – the man who scored an excellent solo strike in the Robins' 3-1 win at Carrow Road last October – was one of the biggest casualties as Johnson went all 4-4-1-1 on the Canaries.
David Noble was the one in behind the familiar, strapping figure of Adebola. Given the urgent nature of the Robins' needs and the ugly squall descending on Ashton Gate, Adebola's big forehead could well figure large in today's game.
Come the announcement of the teams and Jamie Cureton's expectations were duly met – a resounding chorus of boos greeted the one-time Eastville boy as he looked to thwart the Robins' Premiership dreams with his first-ever goal against the red side of his home city.
With the Canaries kicking off, it was on-loan Chelsea youngster Ryan Bertrand who was swiftly into the action; two big clearances and a brief, ill-fated run down the left to be more precise. It was the Robins who provided the first shot of the contest when Jamie McAllister let fly in speculative style from some 30-yards out – straight into Marshall's mid-riff.
Dion Dublin would respond with a gently-placed lob-cum-shot in the fifth minute that Adriano Basso comfortably saved to his left. It was a brief respite as the Robins started to enjoy the better share of the possession. For any of the Ashton Gate faithful with an ear-piece at work, news that Hull City had taken the lead against Watford merely added to their worries.
The Tigers were clearly intent on ripping one of the automatic promotion berths out of everyone else's hands.
Norwich added to their uneasiness when Mark Fotheringham and Jon Otsemobor combined to put the ball on Matty Pattison's head at the far post. His header wasn't exactly what the promising situation demanded as the game opened up at either end in the midst of a real rain storm.
It was squalling with a vengence as Orr sent a skidding shot towards Marshall's right-hand post which the City No1 had to hurriedly palm wide. Otsemobor would send a low cross skipping through the Robins box that fell just the wrong side of Dion Dublin; for the locals, this game was not going as planned.
The visitors were making better of the appalling conditions as they pushed the ball brightly this way and that; slick, stylish and with plenty of movement, for now the Robins were stuck in their own half. They were back on their own goal-line as Fotheringham whipped a decent, 24th minute free-kick underneath Basso's bar which the keeper caught comfortably.
The keeper was nowhere to be seen as Fotheringham hit a fabulous first-time cross into the Robins' box in the 27th minute. Up rose Dublin and thumped a magnificent header against the bar.
Two minutes later and Cureton robbed McCombe. In through the inside-right channel, he fed the ball inside to Huckerby who, having opened up the angle for himself. sent a low, left-foot shot towards the bottom corner that Basso saved at full-stretch to his right.
From Roeder's view-point in the stands, one if not both of those chances should have been buried. From Huckerby's, he could have been a mere three goals away from that magic, 50-goal mark.
Six minutes before the break and the Robins' almost had the opener they desperately craved as McCombe picked up the ball some 20-yards out and having shown remarkable nimbleness of foot for a centre-half to side-step one challenge, he sent a fine, curling effort goalward that crashed back off the inside of Marshall's left-hand post.
The home side did not have much longer to wait, however, for their breakthrough as two minutes later Marshall could only push a firm, downward Michael McIndoe header away and on into the path of a lurking Adebola. Offside or not, the City defence stood still and watched as his simplest of five-yard tap-ins fired Bristol's faltering promotion hopes back into life.
It prompted Roeder's animated appearance on the touchline as all the Canaries brighter football went wholly unrewarded. Once again, it was a case of taking chances; take chances and you win matches.
The interval brought changes on either side as Nick Carle replaced Lee Johnson and Croft replaced Darel Russell; that allowed Huckerby to switch to the left as Pattison stepped inside to partner Fotheringham. A goal down, the wind blowing and two wingers in place, it was Roeder putting his best foot forward for the second 45.
Within five minutes and Croft was galloping down the right only for Huckerby to handle his eventual cross deep in the Robins box. Moments later and Cureton was driving deep at the heart of the Robins' defence and from amidst a clutch of red shirts, his 20-yard shot skipped no more than a yard-wide of a right upright.
With Norwich continuing to stretch Bristol, Croft threaded Otsemobor in only for his cross to arrow straight through the Robins' six-yard box without a yellow shirt in sight. As the Canaries kept their foot on the gas and Croft continued to pull the home side out of shape, so Dublin was the next to let rip – drilling an 18-yard shot just over.
It was the 38-year-old's last moment of note as he made way for Rigters; his exit was marked with a warm round of applause from the Ashton Gate faithful as his grand retirement tour continued. Other than that, they were stuck to the edge of their seats as the Canaries pinged cross after cross through the Bristol box without the finish that their possession and approach work deserved.
Whether, the 1300-odd would be treated to something for their travels remained the moot point as Huckerby swept another cross through the Robins' box, Croft pushed the ball back towards the near post where Cureton almost pounced. In the end, McCombe's desperate tackle and the City striker's lack of solid footing saw the ball trickle agonisingly wide.
Norwich's reward finally arrived in the 70th minute as Huckerby robbed Orr away on the left-hand side of the Robins box and, after one little look up, picked his spot inside Basso's far post. Spot picked, a wonderful curling effort racked up No47 for his Canary career. It had been coming.
Not that it was all good news. Rigters pulled up short in the 75th minute; a hamstring clearly having gone ping. From a distance and his instant exit suggested that could be his loan spell over.
Bristol City (4-4-1-1): Basso; Orr, Carey, McCombe, McAllister; Murray, Johnson (Carle, 45 mins), Skuse, McIndoe; Noble (Sproule, 79 mins); Adebola (Brooker, 70 mins). Subs (not used): Weale, Fontaine.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Marshall; Otsemobor, Bertrand, Shackell, Pearce; Huckerby, Fotheringham, Russell (Croft, 45 mins), Pattison; Cureton, Dublin (Rigters, 60 mins (Evans, 76 mins)). Subs (not used): Gilks, Gibbs.
Man of the Match: Mark Fotheringham.