CHELSEA’S captain was in tears at the finish, a reminder that, for all their athleticism and attitude, we had been watching youngsters still in their teens.
But there were few home fans left to give Lewis Baker consoling cheers. There hadn’t been many to start with and most started streaming out of Stamford Bridge as soon as it became clear that the London club’s expensively assembled and extravagantly rewarded under-18s had suffered a spirit-crushing defeat.
So it was us, the 3,000 Yellow Army foot soldiers, who applauded Chelsea before giving our own young Youth Cup winners the roaring acclaim they will remember when they are as old as me.
As a Facebook friend of mine posted, there are times as a Canaries fan when you feel you are part of something special. This week has brought those times back with two of the most remarkable days in the history of the great club from the fine city.
And the fans played a crucial role. Never listen to those at any other club who say their following is special or exceptionally passionate. It is us who wear the badge with the yellow bird who have set new standards of support.
How could Chelsea fans stomp out on their kids? How could they become so sated by success, so flush with a sense of entitlement that they wouldn’t stay to the finish and applaud teenagers?
It will never be like that at Norwich. We remember what failure feels like, so when success comes, boy, it feels so good. But we can’t take it for granted.
And the romp against West Brom was such a life-enhancing day precisely because it came after a week of gnawing fear. The dreadful defeat against Villa really did fill us with dread.
Yet, despite what happened against Villa, an extraordinary number of us bought our Youth Final tickets anyway, ready to give the boys our best no matter how dejected we might be by then. We’d planned this weekend’s trip to Manchester City, although we knew it might be a wake. And we flooded into Carrow Road last Sunday ready to shout ourselves stupid.
In his programme notes for that last home game of the season, our manager praised the fact that Carrow Road is always full and we frequently take our full allocation to away games. He knows that such sustained, constant support is a rarity, especially at our end of the table.
Because of the tricks chief executive David McNally has conjured with extra seats, City’s average attendance this season (26,672) is actually more than the declared capacity. So, in theory, we’ve sold, on average 102.4 per cent of our tickets!
Wigan have managed only 76.2 per cent at a ground which holds less than ours. And I often see their away mini-bus on my way to and from games for my job. Aston Villa – who believe they are so much bigger than us – achieved only 82.3 per cent. Sunderland and Everton have both been less than 90 per cent full on average.
I am still on Fulham’s data base after buying tickets for that match we don’t talk about in 2005. So I receive their emails imploring me to attend matches which ought not to require such desperate marketing.
The experience is utterly different for Norwich fans. On the day the West Brom tickets went on sale to City’s Super Members I forgot until half-way through the morning. So my wife and I ended up sitting in separate rows with impaired views in the River End/Main Stand corner.
Of course City have their share of message board miserablists and phone-in Jonahs. At the first sign of difficulty they need to blame someone. When the going gets tough, they get going with conspiracy theories. But we all show our hurt in different ways and the important thing is that, at Carrow Road on Sunday and at Stamford Bridge the next night, it was the evident desire of supporters which stiffened sinews on the pitch and encouraged an intensity of effort.
For all my determined positivity, I too had feared the worst after the Villa defeat. Until then I honestly believed we would crawl over the line, a point at a time. But it was a hammer blow to lose to Paul Lambert – and Gabby Agbonlahor’s goals emphasised what Norwich have lacked for nine months: pace and top quality in attack.
Has Chris Hughton been too negative? Well, remember that he doesn’t actually do the recruitment. He agrees the transfer targets, but it wasn’t he who failed to sign the striker we needed in August or January.
I’m not blaming negotiator-in-chief McNally, either. I know how tiny the budget was for a signing and his wages and I am not surprised we didn’t land anyone significant.
So I believe Hughton looked at what we’d got and decided that the best deployment of our limited resources would be based on solidity in defence, with Wes – sometimes our only creative passer – playing off a lone striker. If we’d played with two up top, we wouldn’t have been good enough to make any more impact. But we would have been profoundly more vulnerable.
The situation was summed up for me at Wigan – in my view the worst performance of the season. Folk strove to get up and support the lone striker. So we were never short of bodies in attack. But we were woefully short of quality.
Kei Kamara, bless him, just wasn’t used to having to work Premier League defenders. So he waited for crosses which never reached him because his opponents didn’t co-operate by standing still.
Eventually Holty came on. But we never looked like scoring.
Our captain has been a disappointment. I say that as someone whose love for him is now immortalised on a brick at Carrow Road. But you only had to see him back at his immense best against the Albion to understand what has been going on.
A solitary striker must run the channels. The important word there is “run”. Our captain did a lot of it during the season, but it is not what he is best at and it brought such meagre rewards this campaign that, psychologically and physically, he was running on empty a lot of the time.
Yet, when we needed him most, there he was on Sunday, pulling wide and delivering the sort of cross he would like to receive so that, eventually, Snoddy plundered the critical first goal. It was an emphatic finish which was considerably more difficult than the Scot made it look, by the way.
Wes’s part in that first goal had a lesson in it as well. He chased the knock-down and forced a block from goalkeeper Foster. Most of Wes’s work this season has been on the edge of the box and he has seldom been the first or second responder when the ball was actually in the box.
Pilks was doing something different on Sunday as well. He left his flank a lot to arrive late but effectively in central positions. He hasn’t done that much since that header against Manchester United.
And Howson was a revelation, wasn’t he? He proved that, with a central midfielder who passes forward, carries the ball forward or gets forward in support, the system Hughton prefered isn’t negative at all.
I think Johnny H epitomised what happened this campaign. In the second season, with the promotion momentum no longer providing impetus, a lot of players found the Premier League an unforgiving place. Some of them learned and grew. Eventually.
I believe as well that the injury to John Ruddy was a huge factor in the grim difficulties after the turn of the year. In 1995 it was an injury to Bryan Gunn which precipitated relegation. This time, it was a damn good job that Hughton identified the need for Bunn and Camp, but Ruddy is a giant in stature and presence. Any team would miss him. We did, certainly.
So do not underestimate the scale of the Hughton’s achievement in fulfilling his brief – nor the enormous significance to the club we care about.
Our manager was statesmanlike after the victory. He permitted himself a few quiet smiles, but he spoke of his pride in making other people happy, because “there are a lot of people at this club who deserve to be in the Premier League”. Then he spoke about his family, and they stress they have suffered when the battle for survival was at its most attritional.
He is a thoroughly decent chap. And sometimes, the good guys do win.
Had we gone down, it would have been a big test for chairman Alan Bowkett, who had experienced only success in his three previous seasons. It would also have pitched us back into a Championship stocked full of ex-Premier League sides. We know the second tier is formidably difficult to leave. Well, it’s hard to get out of it at the right end.
Now though, we approach the future debt-free and ready to share unprecedented television payments. Every club in the Premier League will get their share as well, but we should be able to devote a much bigger proportion of income into the playing budget from here on in.
There will be other seasons when we are in peril, though. If it can happen to Newcastle and Sunderland, it will definitely happen to us.
But Charlton, with whom we were relegated to League One four short years ago this month, are still striving to make an impact in the Championship. Stockport, who were one place above us on the night Lambert watched us lose at Brentford, will start next season with part-time players in the Blue Square Bet North.
But the Yellow Army will march into the top grounds in the top division.
We are Premier League.