Sheffield Wednesday boss Brian Laws led the post-match tributes to the retiring Dion Dublin and made one prediction that will send a chill down many a spine – that the Championship will be just as tight next season as it was this.
Not that Canary boss Glenn Roeder didn't have a word for the 39-year-old as Dublin made one of the more remarkable exits in recent memory with 35,000 people standing to salute not just his second-half exit, but his return to the pitch for one last time after the final whistle has blown.
Very, very few players command that level of respect – particularly when you consider that 30,000-odd of those who stood had rather more pressing things on their mind than acknowledging the departure of an opposition player. After all, as much as they were about to cruise to safety, at the time of Dublin's substitution the Owls could still have found themselves playing League One football next year.
It was a measure of the man that all thoughts were put to one side for a good, 30 seconds as he made his way to the touchline. Where Laws was waiting to greet the veteran Canary striker – only after he had shaken the hand of the Wednesday coaching team in their own technical area did he receive a similarly warm hug from Messrs Roeder and Clark.
For the 4,500-odd travelling Canary fans, being there for Dion's final game – and witnessing the wonderful, ninth minute dummy that set his big pal Darren Huckerby in for the game's opening goal – was about as good as it got. The rest of the contest pretty much explained in a nut-shell why the Norfolk side finished just one, solitary win above the drop zone.
“If anybody was aspiring to be a professional footballer, they should look at the way that Dion Dublin has conducted himself – he's been awesome,” said the Owls chief, as he watched City's retiring Player of the Season going through his party pieces one last time.
He had, after all, always insisted that he wanted to leave the game pretty much near the top; to leave the punters wanting more… And he did exactly that, as Laws was swift to acknowledge.
“We knew that he was going to try and come out on a high and we said that he'll use his experience – he's not going to use his legs, but what he will do is use his experience in the right areas and against two young defenders, I thought he was giving them a torrid time.
“Not for running them off the ball – it was more a case of craftiness and creativity. He was causing us all sorts of problems just by laying the ball off very early; seeing the midfield runners coming through. And that's why we had to regroup and discuss how to approach him – and we did it much, much better in the second-half.
“And once we scored that second goal ourselves we started to carve out opportunities for ourselves to score.”
Because as Laws was all too well aware there was a moment in the midst of that Dublin-led first-half in which City should have bundled the Owls right through that trap door – in particular the moment that Ched Evans, having been released through that inside left channel by another tempting Dublin pass, rolled the ball across an empty penalty area and into the feet of an unmarked Matty Pattison.
What followed was a perfect example of the Achilles heel that has dogged Norwich all season – you don't take chances, you don't win matches. And while Laws might be happy enough to give Lee Grant the credit for a fine, one-handed save to his right, the fact was that had Pattison opened up his body and let the ball roll onto his right foot, it was a simple tuck into the bottom corner.
All left foot, instead the City midfielder got himself into the most awkward of firing positions and a glorious chance to make the game all but safe at 2-0 went AWOL.
Pattison, in fairness, hasn't been the only culprit this season. Far from it. But as Roeder starts to rebuild his team this summer, so someone to score goals from midfield must be one of his priorities; goal-scoring centre-halves would be a bonus; full-backs that chip in with three or four apiece and a striker that finishes the season with 20-plus goals to his name… they'd all help.
Interestingly as the debate rages on his future, Laws also revealed what a menace Huckerby proved in the game's opening 45 minutes. “Huckerby was causing all sorts of problems; drifting in, coming inside. He stayed out wide; didn't have any licence to defend – it was that relaxed, gung-ho attacking mood that they had.
“And to be fair JJ [Jermaine Johnson] did well on him because Huckerby will cause any defender a problem,” said Laws, staring right down the barrel of a gun in those early exchanges. At that point, of course, City were hitting their Bristol City (a) heights – only as ever without the finish to match.
“Those first 20 minutes? It was frightening,” said Laws, with referee Mark Clattenburg about to ride to his rescue – only after Pattison had let the home side slip off the hook.
“I thought we had heart-attack material against Leicester last week, but I was tearing my hair out after 20 minutes. This was a game we could have lost within those 20 minutes – we could have been two-down, maybe three.
“And when we needed the goalkeeper to pull out a fantastic save – he'd does it. He kept us in the game; that was the turning point for me. Great save, but that was clearly going to be 2-0; they would have been pretty buoyant; the nerves would have stretched us, but thankfully we bounced back and got a penalty. Got a goal and got back.”
As for what awaits everyone next year, Laws insists it will be the same again. That it will be another campaign where every team can be every other on their day. The Owls boss said that was a sign of the “strength” of the Championship; others might argue that it was a sign of the weakness of this division that – from top to bottom – the only consistent factor is the inconsistency of all concerned.
“It's been an incredible year in the Championship – at both ends of the table. But it just shows you that there is no divide between top and bottom – it's just about that consistency,” said Laws.
“And for somebody to be promoted with 70-odd points just shows you the strength within the Championship – it's so, so even and it could be anybody's. And the fact that we've had to survive with over 50 points tells you how tight this league is – and it's not going to be any easier next year. It'll be even tighter.”
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