Norwich City’s electrifying run of form under new boss Alex Neil was crowned by the sweetest of derby successes today as goals from Bradley Johnson and Lewis Grabban either side of the interval swept the Canaries to a 2-0 win over their Suffolk visitors.
It was all that the Yellow and Green Army had longed for; their sixth, successive win in the Sky Bet Championship lifting City into third spot and over a now sixth Ipswich.
It has been an extraordinary two months and the stats tell their own story. Eight wins in the ten games that the 33-year-old Neil has been in charge; five clean sheets out of their last seven outings for the Scot.
Talk about taking the final bend with a vengeance… And now with the double over Town safely completed all eyes will be on the home games against Derby and Middlesbrough when, on current form and fortune, the Championship title could be decided.
Both teams lost yesterday; both will know that Norwich are steaming like a train up that table behind them. Few will fancy a trip, to Carrow Road between now and the end of the season.
“I thought it was always going to be a difficult game,” said a ‘hoarse’ Neil afterwards.
“With the occasion, it was always going to be hard trying to stay focussed. And, if I’m being honest, I didn’t think it was the best game,” he added. “With the way that Ipswich play it was always going to be a bit of a battle.
“But ultimately, as I said during the week, the most important thing was to get the win and I thought we deserved to win the match.”
The foundations for City’s sixth straight win were the obvious ones – a rock steady defence that yielded little or no chances to the opposition and a fine cutting edge, be it from the forward line or a centre midfield in which Johnson is having a ball.
“It’s a wonderful strike again from Bradley Johnson,” Neil told BBC Radio Norfolk. “He did it during the week and he’s added another one today. And I think that’s now double figures for him in terms of goals and I’m delighted for him.”
Neil’s starting line up was full of attacking intent – even if it called for Cameron Jerome and Gary Hooper to start proceedings on the bench.
Wes Hoolahan was handed centre stage behind Lewis Grabban as Alexander Tettey and Johnson prepared to shield the usual City back four. Nathan Redmond would offer pace and width a-plenty as the Canaries looked to stretch Town out across the pitch – offering Wesley the space in which to strut his stuff.
With reportedly just 18 fit, first team squad players to select from, Mick McCarthy’s selection riches weren’t in the same league as those enjoyed by his opposite number. New loan signing Richard Chaplow might have 300-odd Championship games to his name, but today’s derby clash probably wasn’t the ideal game to make your full Town debut – especially in a busy midfield where the likes of Jonny Howson, the restored Tettey and the in-form Johnson would be looking to dominate from the off.
In the event, Chaplow’s derby debut ended at half-time. McCarthy had seen enough as fellow loan signing Luke Varney was thrown into the fray.
In fairness, Town matched their hosts in the game’s early exchanges – Jay Tabb forcing John Ruddy into the game’s first save of note after five minutes as Howson pushed and probed around the edge of the visitors box.
Whatever nerves Norwich might have felt in front of a hugely expectant home audience disappeared in the 24th minute as the nerveless Johnson rifled City into the lead.
Neil’s decision to pair Grabban with Hoolahan paid rich dividends as the former teed Johnson up on the edge of the Town box. What followed was the regulation, top corner strike – the ball rocketing goalward with another sweet, sweet connection from the City midfielder.
A sharp Freddie Sears twice looked for a swift leveller as the visitors responded. They weren’t about to go quietly into the night. Norwich would need to work for their derby spoils, but with both Jerome and Hooper still to come after the interval the odds were stacked heavily in favour of the home side courtesy of Johnson’s latest effort.
Two, swift Town corners straight after the break proved the point; that Ipswich were in the play-off spots for a reason. They had matched their hosts shot for shot, corner for corner; it was just the Johnson-esque finish that they lacked.
How long Neil would go before looking to shake things up and search for the killer second goal was the next question. The answer was an hour as Jerome replaced Redmond.
Two minutes later and Jerome’s drive cannoned back off Town keeper Bartosz Bialkowski and went in somehow off the lurking Grabban. Norwich had that vital second goal; the driving seat was their’s.
Jerome was handed a perfect opportunity to make it three by Howson’s 73rd minute through-ball only for Bialkowski to block the City substitute as Carrow Road revelled in the prospect of leaping over the near-neighbours and on into the automatic promotion mix.
Skipper Russell Martin came close to that third as Chris Wood almost pulled one back for Town. To their credit, they kept fighting. No-one was rolling over against the oldest of sporting foes.
The one real moment of alarm in the game’s closing moments came with an injury to Jerome that prompted Hooper to arrive for the final, five minutes of added-on time.
Wigan (h) might be a doubt for Jerome (C), but right now Norwich have strength and spirit to spare.