Jonny Howson celebrated his 100th Canary appearance in perfect style this afternoon as his vital opening goal set City on their way to a big 3-1 home win over Nottingham Forest.
Cameron Jerome’s 19th goal of the season – a perfect, 56th minute back-heel – got the automatic promotion bandwagon rolling again as the Norfolk side hauled themselves back within three points of top spot.
The recalled Wes Hoolahan capped a mesmerising display with the 59th minute penalty that sealed the contest and left boss Alex Neil a far happier man than he was mid-week.
“I thought for 80 minutes there we were fantastic,” said Neil afterwards, with Forest’s late consolation taking a little bit of shine off proceedings.
“A lot of credit has to go to the players because a lot of them were getting questioned after the other night – by me also,” he told BBC Radio Norfolk. “But I think they responded today.”
One win now separates the top four sides. With seven games to go, the City chief readily admitted that there will be twists and turns aplenty. One arrived at Vicarage Road this afternoon.
“Over the course of these next seven games there’s going to e ups and downs – I can guarantee you that. Us and other teams.
“But, hopefully, if we can have more ups than downs then I think the top two is certainly achievable.”
He will also have to use his playing resources wisely – not least a certain 32-year-old Dubliner who didn’t start at Huddersfield.
“Wes was fantastic today – a great talent. And I thought when he came on against Huddersfield he was excellent. But if I am honest, I was trying to save him to make sure he was fresh for today.
“When he’s playing and he’s on song, he can really make the team tick.”
With City looking to kick on again after those back-to-back draws against first Derby and then Huddersfield in mid-week, Neil returned Hoolahan to his favoured role just off Jerome as Alexander Tettey replaced Nathan Redmond.
Bournemouth’s lunchtime cruise against Middlesbrough had only added to the need for three points today – a fact lost on no-one. It was a day when the result meant everything as the games started to run out on the automatic promotion hopefuls.
The one piece of good news from that Cherries success was the sense that Boro’ might be vulnerable when they arrive at Carrow Road. Before then, however, Norwich need to rediscover that happy knack of picking up three points without too much sweat and toil.
Equally, they need to rediscover the route to victory without the energy that the injured Lewis Grabban had delivered across that front line.
City were certainly the smarter out of the blocks as first the on-loan Graham Dorrans and then Bradley Johnson sniffed an opportunity around the Forest box.
It was always going to be an initially cagey affair as the visitors recognised that it was getting to the point of ‘Now or never…’ with regard to their own play-off ambitions this season.
Their cause was not helped by an early injury to striker Dexter Blackstock. Maybe the footballing fates were to smile on the Norfolk side as his afternoon ended on 18 minutes.
Jerome drilled one up and over as the Canaries racked up successive corners as Forest shuffled their pack in Blackstock’s absence. In all likelihood, it would be a tense and nervy afternoon for all concerned, particularly once Michail Antonio started to make his presence felt around the half-hour mark and forced John Ruddy into a fine, spreading save.
The City keeper would be called into action again before the break as the Canaries continued to dominate possession-wise without – for now – really ever threatening goal-wise. Howson glanced a header wide and forced the Forest keeper Karl Darlow into making a decent save as Norwich pushed and probed.
As it proved however, Howson was just setting his sights. A minute into first-half stoppage time and Hoolahan’s lay-off allowed the City midfielder to pick his spot inside the far post. That vital opening strike had been coming and now that it had finally arrived, Carrow Road could breathe a little easier.
That goal to the good at the break, the next question for Neil was whether or not to give mid-week hero Jamar Loza his chance in the search for a killer second – or else shut up shop and let the likes of Gary O’Neil see this one out.
The kid would certainly be afforded the warmest of Carrow Road welcomes were he to be unleashed. It would be equally fascinating to see whether the Academy youngster got the nod ahead of Gary Hooper.
In the event, Neil had no need to turn to either for the game’s decisive moment as Jerome delivered a moment of magic to settle the contest back-heeling Martin Olsson’s cross in off the far upright.
Three minutes later and Olsson persuaded substitute Chris Burke to concede a 59th minute penalty which Hoolahan comfortably converted. Good night, Forest.
Well, almost. Burke would make amends slightly for his penalty error by tapping in a consolation after Ruddy failed to gather Jamie Patterson’s long range effort.
One for the Canary keeper to explain to his manager afterwards.