Second-half strikes from midfield duo Jonny Howson and the flourishing Graham Dorrans kept the Canaries bang on course for automatic promotion tonight with a compelling 2-0 away win at Leeds United.
With both Bournemouth and Middlesbrough also winning, it was crucial that Alex Neil’s men maintained their extraordinary run of away form on the back of the 2-1 win at Bolton on Saturday.
That they did in stubborn style this evening limiting the home side to just a single shot on target as they continued to make light of the loss of the suspended Bradley Johnson.
And while much, rightly, will be made of the goals that the midfield have delivered of late, City’s rise and rise up the table has been founded upon a near water-tight defence superbly led and marshalled by skippers past and present in the shape of Sebastien Bassong and Russell Martin.
Unless Brentford can turn around a 25-goal disadvantage in terms of goal difference, tonight’s result also guaranteed City a place in this season’s play-offs. That, you suspect, would now be a ‘disappointing’ end for a club flying towards that finishing line and Friday night’s live clash with rivals Boro.
“I just asked a few questions of them as a group,” said Neil afterwards, quizzed about the half-time turnaround in terms of intensity performance-wise.
“How much did they really want to get to where we all want to go? And credit to them as a group – they responded. And then some.”
The fact that both their nearest rivals had won mattered little. “I always work on the basis that they do win – then anything else becomes a bonus,” the City chief told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards.
All eyes now focus on Carrow Road on Friday night. Boro at home.
“These are the sort of games that you go into football to play in – and we want the place to be rocking,” was his simple command.
For tonight’s second leg of their northern promotion tour, the City boss opted to go again with the same starting XI that nicked such a big away win at Bolton.
Gary Hooper, therefore, found himself still stuck on the subs bench as Wes Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond continued in a midfield still short of ex-Leeds star Johnson.
Howson did, however, return to his former Elland Road haunts as the Canaries looked to grab their eighth win in ten away days under the Scot.
They should, by rights, have been well on their way by the half hour-mark – had Dorrans’ aim been about two inches lower.
Instead, his 31st minute penalty after the returning Howson was pulled from pillar to post crashed back off the Leeds bar. Moments later and the on-loan Canary midfielder was blazing over after a decent invite off Cameron Jerome.
Thus far, it wasn’t Dorrans’ night.
All square and a little underwhelming at the break, the manager’s quiet words of wisdom took ten minutes to take effect as Howson marked his return to Yorkshire with the game’s opening goal.
It had been coming. Redmond had twice caught sight of goal; Martin had, likewise, had a pop. In the end, however, it was Howson who neatly picked his spot off a Redmond cross.
Norwich needed that. Just as they needed a big defensive block from their skipper moments later to deny Scott Wootton. With Middlesbrough and Bournemouth both leading and Watford travelling to Forest tomorrow night, the Canaries equally needed to keep their foot firmly on the gas results-wise.
Even before tonight, the fight for the two automatic places and, indeed, the Championship title looked all set to go right to the wire. Events would keep that particular pot boiling fiercely.
Goal to the good, the next question for the manager was whether to sit and stick with the one – or twist substitute-wise and go for two with either a Hooper or a Lewis Grabban thrown into the fray.
After Saturday when City finished the game fielding three, out-and-out strikers and gaining their due reward for such adventure, Neil had made his philosophy clear. Better to be hung for a sheep than for a lamb; the 33-year-old doesn’t do meek.
But given the stakes, would he err on the side of caution and let a Gary O’Neil see the result out?
The other alternative was to do now’t. Given Leeds had yet to muster a single shot on target and there was 72 minutes gone, why fiddle at all when you have a good thing going on?
In the event, Neil opted for fresh legs and fresh width as Elliott Bennett replaced Hoolahan for the game’s final ten minutes.
Alex Mowatt did force John Ruddy into a something of a ‘worldy’ save in the 84th minute as the Canary faithful started to count every second down to the final whistle.
A few more seconds went as Hooper replaced Redmond. Once again Neil was shoring up nothing; going like for like in attacking intention. Fortune was smiling on the brave as the nervy nineties neared.
In the end, it was a cake walk. Jerome broke on the right and there was Dorrans making amends for his earlier penalty miss. Good night and God bless, Leeds United.