A horror own-goal from Canary keeper John Ruddy gifted Derby a share of the spoils at Carrow Road this afternoon as City were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw with their automatic promotion rivals.
A goal up at half-time after Cameron Jerome’s latest conversion, Norwich looked well set to keep themselves firmly on the heels of both Middlesbrough and Bournemouth as the two racked up easy home wins against Ipswich and Blackpool respectively.
But the footballing fates had a nasty trick up their sleeve for Alex Neil’s men as Ruddy somehow managed to juggle an innocuous corner into his own net and give the Rams a largely undeserved point.
Try as the Canaries might thereafter, they could not breach the Derby defence for a second occasion and were left to content themselves with a place three points off top spot – and not just the one the first hour of the contest had promised.
Afterwards Neil was quick to defend his No1 – even if he admitted that two, big points had gone astray.
“Sometimes in football you don’t get what you deserve – and I think today was one of those occasions,” said the City chief, as he pointed to a wayward hand impeding his keeper as the game turned.
“I’ve had a look at it and as John [Ruddy] goes for the ball the guy that’s on him has actually got hold of his arm,” Neil told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards.
“So he’s actually tried to grab it with one hand which is a bit unfair on John.
“I’m sure John will look at it and think that he could have maybe done better. But saying all that, John has been fantastic since I came here and made a lot of vital saves in games that have been crucial to us getting to this point.”
Which remains bang in the promotion mix.
“If we continue to play like we did today in the next nine games we’ll be completely fine,” he said. “Its one win [from the top]. It’s a one game swing. But we’ll look at this game on its own merits and the chances that we had, we had more than enough to win it.”
For this afternoon’s visit of one of the season’s genuine promotion contenders, Neil was able to field arguably one of his strongest line ups as Sebastien Bassong shrugged off his reported knee knock and Alexander Tettey returned to the centre of midfield following his two-match ban.
With Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson and the on-loan Graham Dorrans completing the midfield, the City chief still found space for Wes Hoolahan in his favoured hole just off top-scorer Jerome.
As for the visitors, their big absentee was ex-Canary striker and Rams’ top-scorer Chris Martin. The one-time boy from Beccles would have been bang up for today’s contest. His absence was an early blow for the vistors.
The net result of all that was a bright and inventive opening period in which Norwich largely dominated as Howson forced an early save as Steven Whittaker, Johnson, Tettey and skipper Russell Martin all tried their luck.
In the end it was Jerome who delivered the breakthrough as the 28-year-old grabbed his 18th goal of the season just on the half-hour mark. The beauty was in the build-up as City carved Derby open. Martin Olsson delivered the final pass for Jerome to finish.
Carrow Road was buoyant. They sniffed promotion in the spring air.
A goal to the good at the break, Jerome almost added to his afternoon tally six minutes into the second period with a sharp header that flew just high and wide of the Rams’ goal.
A second strike now by the home side would all-but kill the contest given the defensive discipline Neil has – by and large – managed to instil in his charges since his arrival.
It didn’t happen. What did was a fumble of the highest order from Ruddy as he managed to somehow juggle Jamie Hanson’s regulation 66th minute corner into his own net.
Suddenly, Neil’s best-laid plans had gone out of the window and Norwich were back to looking for a winner; Derby, by contrast, had the point they were always looking for.
A Bassong header off a Hoolahan cross came close to delivering City’s second as Neil threw Gary Hooper into the fray at the expense of Dorrans.
If someone was to come up with a late winner now, it would be one of ‘those’ Carrow Road moments as the Canary faithful clung on to the hope of another twist to the tale before the day was done.
Hooper came close moments after Tom Ince had threatened at the other end. On this occasion, Ruddy stood firm.
Before the end, Jerome and Johnson would both try for that one, last moment of magic; alas both would fall short of forcing the winner. City had to settle for the draw and two point dropped – alas, all-too literally.