Two second-half strikes from Preston’s Paul Gallagher ensured that Norwich City bowed out of this season’s FA Cup competition with barely a whimper, let alone any hint of a bang and renewed the pressure on boss Neil Adams.
The Canary manager had said all the right things in the run-up to this afternoon’s third round clash with the League One promotion hopefuls.
How Norwich would field a strong side; look for a win; be positive and, above all, give the travelling supporters something to cheer.
In the event, however, Norwich fell flat on their faces at the first hurdle and failed to even muster a single shot on target.
Every year, City fans hope for the best. That – for once – Norwich might ruffle a cup feather. And every year, such expectations prove ill-founded as the Canaries ‘love affair’ with the cup proves anything but.
Tonight that cup would over-floweth with bitterness and resentment at more hopes dashed; more hard-earned money wasted.
Adams and his players were both on the back-foot afterwards. Patience, in certain quarters, will be in short supply.
“We’ve got talent in the team, but they out-worked us – and we’re embarrassed by that,” said Bradley Johnson, speaking to BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards.
“Coming into the game we were feeling good and confident – obviously it was disappointing to lose the game away at Reading,” he added.
“But we knew coming here it was going to be a tough game, but as I said they out-worked us and deserved to beat us.”
None of which will cut much ice with the supporters; what might will be a vastly improved performance against a flying Bournemouth side back in the league.
At least City have a big opportunity to make amends. To prove that there is a genuine hunger to do well within that dressing room. It is attitude, more than ability at this level, that is increasingly coming under the spotlight.
“We had a long chat after the game and we know that we let the manager down today,” admitted Johnson. “He put out a strong team; we should have won the game, but we let ourselves down, we let the manager down – and the fans.”
For the said 1,000 Canary fans who made the long haul north in search of the ‘magic’ of the cup, the first-half yielded just one, off-target shot from Jonny Howson by way of return.
As befitted the home side, Preston had pressed that much harder – albeit if they had nothing to show for it goals-wise by the break. Gallagher did, at least, force John Ruddy into a save three minutes from the interval.
He would find his range later. Twice.
Otherwise, Preston-Norwich was not about to unduly trouble those charged with editing the TV ‘highlights’.
Few could argue with the strength of Adams’ starting XI. For while skipper Russell Martin and top scorer Cameron Jerome might have been missing, the City chief still had sufficient ambition to hand Wes Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond a start – two players who many would have in from the outset cup or not.
Likewise, Michael Turner’s return at the heart of the defence alongside England Under-21 defender Ryan Bennett was hardly much of a weakening.
On the bench, Adams did favour a sprinkling of youth where Josh Murphy was joined by Jamar Loza and Scottish boy wonder Conor McGrandles, fresh from his recent Championship appearance.
There would still be little room for excuse, however, should their League One hosts find their way into the fourth round draw in the course of the second period. One or two will not be an overly-forgiving mood after the late autumn doubters found themselves with more grist to the mill courtesy of last weekend’s 2-1 away defeat at Reading.
Opportunity duly knocked in the 71st minute when Gallagher put the home side ahead of a Jack King cross.
In fairness, Norwich had at least mustered their second, wayward shot off target as Redmond did his tiny bit for an increasingly lost cause.
Adams would try to prise the initiative back City’s way as Hoolahan, Gary Hooper and Ignasi Miquel were replaced by Murphy, Lafferty and Loma respectively.
The net result was a second goal for Gallagher and an early start back down the M6 for the travelling Yellow and Green Army whose interest in a cup competition had, once again, lasted little more than an hour and a half.
It is a malaise that is not confined to Norwich; ‘concentrating on the league’ has been a managerial refrain that has bedevilled both cup competitions for years and is only likely to deepen again this season as the gulf between league and cup rewards remains as wide as it is.
But tonight that will be of no help to Adams and his management team as City supporters pay a heavy, heavy price for the joys of Preston (a) – and get sweet Fanny Adam by way of return.