Gary Hooper’s dramatic, 93rd minute winner kept Alex Neil’s Canaries bang on course for one of the automatic promotion places this afternoon as City finally beat a belligerent Bolton 2-1.
With both Watford and Middlesbrough winning, for the better part of an hour Norwich looked as if they would finish the day in fourth as Graham Dorrans first goal for the club was matched by a Bolton leveller.
Huff and puff as they might, City looked as if they would have to settle for just a point ahead of the Tuesday night trip to Elland Road and the second leg of their northern road trip.
But deep into injury time – in a manner all-too reminiscent of the glory, glory days of Paul Lambert’s promotion run – so Neil’s extraordinary start to his managerial life south of the border would continue in the shape of Hooper’s late winner.
It kept City second. More importantly still, it kept the belief flying – this is Norwich’s year; this is Neil’s time. He is the man to deliver the golden ticket back to the English Premier League.
“There are four games left – and our aim is to win them all,” said Neil afterwards, as Norwich grabbed their fourth straight win and kept themselves bang in the automatic mix.
What is truly remarkable is Norwich’s away form under the 33-year-old – nine games, seven wins and two draws. Not a defeat on the road to his name.
And he manages to find the spark. From someone. When it matters.
“I said to the players at half-time, I don’t want us to leave here with any regrets – leave everything on the pitch,” said Neil, as his decision to throw three, out-and-out strikers at Bolton for the game’s final 20 minutes reaped such a magnificent and memorable reward.
“Today we threw caution to the wind,” the manager told BBC Radio Norfolk.
“We went for it – and it paid off. And I would always do that rather than err on the side of caution. If you’re going to be aggressive and be bold, then a lot of the time you will get your rewards.”
And in Hooper he had the right man in the right place at just the right time.
“He’s got great quality in and around the box and if you can get the ball into him, the one thing he can do is he can finish. And, thankfully for us, he had a great opportunity drop to him and it was a great finish.”
Bournemouth’s 2-0 away win at Brighton last night had thrown the gauntlet down at the chasing promotion pack as City travelled north this weekend to what was once the Reebok Stadium.
The re-branded ‘Macron Stadium’ awaited as Neil pondered his midfield options in the absence of the suspended Bradley Johnson.
The obvious thing to do would be to slip the solid Gary O’Neil into the heart of proceedings. Instead the Scot sprung something of a surprise as he went best foot forward with both Nathan Redmond and Wes Hoolahan on from the start.
The other surprise was the sight of Lewis Grabban on the bench. Most had reckoned on his ankle injury sidelining him until the summer. Not so, it would appear.
Neil’s decision to give Redmond a start gained its due reward within ten minutes as the England Under-21 winger teased Josh Vela into conceding an inviting free-kick.
Dorrans’ sweet-struck effort was helped on its way to the bottom corner by a deflection off the wall; those tend to be the breaks when fortune is smiling upon you.
The footballing gods have kicked City in the teeth often enough in seasons past. There was an element of pay-back to Norwich’s early breakthrough.
To their credit, the Canaries kept in search of the jugular as Steven Whittaker, Jonny Howson and the re-born Sebastien Bassong sought out a killer second against a mid-table Bolton side with – all hoped – one foot in the flip-flops.
That hope was brushed aside when Adam Le Fondre equalised in the 18th minute. With Watford opening their account at Millwall, City were suddenly out of the automatics and back amongst the play-off pack as twist followed turn.
Cameron Jerome would come closest to restoring City’s advantage before the break as 2,100 travelling Canary fans looked for a new promotion hero in the two-match absence of the suspended Johnson.
The fairy tale would be a winner from Grabban, who arrived in the place of Hoolahan in the 57th minute to add fresh energy in the face of a stubborn Bolton back three. It took less than a minute for the returning City striker to find room for a strike on goal, Dorrans again proving the provider.
With Middlesbrough slipping ahead and Watford extending their advantage at Millwall, Norwich could sorely do with another away success ahead of the final, frantic four game run-in.
Throwing further caution to the wind, on 66 minutes Neil slammed Hooper on in place of Redmond in the hope that the former Celtic star would come back to haunt his old Bhoys boss Neil Lennon.
Nip and tuck and a game of managerial chess between two of the game’s brighter young bosses was now the order of the day as Norwich found a Bolton side unwilling to roll over and die.
City continued to press. Russell Martin with a loud penalty appeal; Sebastien Bassong a header over; Jerome a volley over. But the winner was remaining elusive.
Two minutes into added on time and Jerome’s flick on fell to Hooper. His lob beat stranded Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan and sailed oh-so sweetly on.
Norwich had their hero. The swiftest of returns to the Premiership might be just a few weeks away.