Hugo Rodallega’s 40th minute strike proved all that was required to condemn the Canaries to another gut-wrenching defeat on the banks of the Thames as Neil Adams’ managerial reign opened with a 1-0 defeat to Fulham.
Whilst the travelling City fans might have been spared the type of 6-0 humiliation that their hosts last inflicted on them in a fixture of similar import, there was no disguising the fact that the effect of this weekend’s defeat could be just as fatal to Norfolk’s hopes of hosting English Premier League football next season.
Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal now lie between the Canaries and safety; they have just a two-point head-start on Fulham going into those final four games.
Adams – to his credit – made the kind of big calls required of him given the dire circumstance he inherited off Chris Hughton.
But he merely slammed up against the same brick walls that did for his predecessor – namely a softness at the heart of the defence and a complete lack of confidence, if not competence, at the top of his team where the club’s record transfer signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel had another afternoon to forget as big chances came and went.
Never say never; football has a habit of throwing up the most remarkable of results – witness Crystal Palace’s 1-0 victory over title-chasing Chelsea. But come the final day of the season and Fulham play host to the Eagles – as Norwich entertain Champions League chasing Arsenal.
The Fulham supporters knew exactly what today’s result meant; the Great Escape was still on. Belief soared.
For City, today’s result all-but nails their fate. Don’t score goals, you don’t win matches. Simple as.
Team-wise, the biggest raise of the eye-brow in terms of the new managerial regime was more about who wasn’t there than who was as skipper Sebastien Bassong disappeared without trace to be replaced by a returning Michael Turner at centre-half who found himself with club captain Russell Martin at his side. That allowed Steven Whittaker to return at full-back.
It could be a case of the new-boy in the dug-out turning to characters and individuals he felt he could trust; or something as simple as Bassong picking up an ill-timed knock.
Leroy Fer’s return to midfield gave City an extra physicality; Nathan Redmond gave the Canaries an extra injection of pace.
It was whether van Wolfswinkel – handed that oh-so troubled starting striker’s berth ahead of Gary Hooper – would finally add that missing link in front of goal that would then do so much to determine the outcome of today’s desperate relegation tussle. And with it, Adams’ own reputation in terms of a managerial Midas touch.
The start was all a bit nervy; with Fulham just about edging the early exchanges. Today was a huge game for the Londoners; victory and they would be just two points adrift of their visitors. And all with those four, huge fixtures awaiting the Canaries. That fact is lost on no-one.
On 28 minutes and City could – should – have stolen an advantage as Fulham’s early enthusiasm petered out. Van Wolfswinkel had the first chance; David Stockdale saved brilliantly. Another miss to the Dutchman’s name – even if the save was right out of the top drawer. Moments later and Bradley Johnson was granted an inviting half-volley on and around the penalty spot only to shank it two yards wide after Stockdale had again saved well from the headed corner.
Three minutes later and Robert Snodgrass was rattling the crossbar off a 25-yard free-kick; Norwich were on the front foot as Fulham looked increasingly all at sea. It was just a case of whether Adams’ tactical invention and selection decisions could reap their due rewards.
The answer arrived five minutes from the break when Rodallega drove Fulham ahead. It was an all-too simple strike as a gentle, set-piece ball was flicked on by Steve Sidwell and there was the unmarked Colombian to smash home. You can change as many managers as you want, but somethings never seem to change at the heart of that Canary defence.
They have an all-too soft a centre. And pay the price; week in, week out.
And then there’s that yawning hole where a front-line once was. Van Wolfswinkel would wriggle in behind the Fulham back line six minutes after the restart, but as opportunity knocked for that desperately needed leveller so RvW appeared to be caught in half a dozen minds as to what to do next. In the end, he did nothing. And the watching Canary fans could only shake their heads in frustration. He had the big nod from Adams.
And hadn’t delivered.
He would exit for Gary Hooper moments later as Norwich pressed on without him. Indeed, it took a huge covering tackle from Brede Hangeland to deny Snodgrass a tap-in after Bradley Johnson dropped a perfect ball in for the marauding Martin Olsson to tap across the penalty area.
The sight of Scott Parker arriving back from injury mid-way through the second period hardly filled the Canary faithful with delight. He ran the game at Carrow Road and scored a fabulous goal to boot. If ever there was a player built to see a game out and keep all three such priceless points in the bag, it was Parker – as the home supporters knew all too well.
He didn’t disappoint. How Norwich could do with a Scotty Parker.
The arrival of first Wes Hoolahan and Josh Murphy – one of Adams’ FA Youth Cup winning teenagers – gave City a different edge going into the game’s final ten minutes. But nothing gave.
Norwich were down and all-but out. Their time in the top flight of English football almost up.