An eighth minute own goal by Alexander Tettey broke hearts across the city of Norwich and beyond tonight as visitors Middlesbrough clambered back to the top of the SkyBet Championship with a massive 1-0 away win.
It left Alex Neil’s Canaries slumping back into fourth as the Scot succumbed to his third home defeat after the earlier reverses to Brentford and Wigan.
Given the fact his side remain unbeaten on their travels, Norwich’s hopes of an automatic promotion place have foundered in their own back-yard.
Tonight they paid a heavy price for a horribly slow start to such a crucial contest and however much they improved after the interval, they simply couldn’t find the one piece of extra quality they needed to deny Boro all three points. The referee could have done his bit, too.
But with Fulham (a) and Brighton (h) still to come for the visitors, they now look hugely well-placed to claim one of the top two spots after this evening’s events.
Norwich, by contrast, look more and more likely to finish at the top of the play-off pack. A double date with the neighbours remains very much on the cards.
“I thought the first 15 minutes cost us the match,” Neil admitted afterwards.
“And the way that the game [then] panned out suited Middlesbrough and their style of play. Once they get their noses in front, they sat back behind the ball and made it extremely difficult.”
The odd chance arrived – and went. But, overall, City didn’t really do enough on the night to overturn Boro’s obvious away-day game plan.
“It’s painful just now,” he admitted to BBC Radio Norfolk. “You never want to lose any game but particularly not one of the magnitude of that.”
As widely expected, the City chief found room again for Bradley Johnson on his return from that two-match ban – Nathan Redmond being the one to make way.
Otherwise, it was very much a case of as-you-were – and rightly so after the Canaries had racked up those two, big back-to-back away wins in the run-up to this evening’s promotion showdown.
It didn’t, however, quite start as planned and Neil’s managerial worth would be put to it’s greatest test yet when Boro stole into that early lead as Tettey glanced Grant Leadbitter’s corner into his own net.
It was all the visitors deserved as the occasion initially appeared to get the better of the home side. They were barely into their stride before finding themselves a goal adrift.
It could easily have been two such was the sluggishness of City’s start.
Daniel Ayala, Jelle Vossen and England Under-21 star Patrick Bamford all caught sight of goal before Wes Hoolahan and Jonny Howson started to muster some kind of response.
Neil would have work to do at the interval if Norwich’s automatic promotion hopes were not to spring a potentially fatal leak at home to one of their biggest, top two rivals.
It was not until the 38th that Norwich managed to muster their first shot on target as Hoolahan took aim off an assist from Graham Dorrans. City at least finished the half in finer fettle than they started it as Sebastien Bassong and Steven Whittaker both banged hard on Boro’s door.
But as the half-time whistle blew with Norwich still that own goal adrift, all thoughts turned to one man – the 33-year-old City boss. How many tricks can Alex Neil pull in 15 minutes to turn this crucial contest round?
The Canaries certainly started as if they meant business with first Hoolahan and then Dorrans forcing chances in the Boro box, only for Bamford to respond in kind at the other end of the pitch.
Huff and puff were there in plenty, but as the visitors started to dig in for what they have got, so Norwich desperately needed to raise their game quality-wise in the final third. It needed a magic moment, in short.
With just over an hour gone, Neil made his first change of the evening as Lewis Grabban replaced Dorrans. The pressure was cranking up as Cameron Jerome saw his effort blocked, before Johnson headed wide off a Whittaker cross but still Boro refused to budge.
With 12 minutes of normal time remaining, the City chief made a double change as Gary Hooper and Redmond replaced Hoolahan and Johnson. Norwich were back to their boldest-best in the sense of having three, out-and-out strikers on the pitch, but would it yield the same result as it did at Bolton?
A full eight minutes of injury time saw Ben Gibson block a nailed-on volley by skipper Russell Martin as Norwich threw the proverbial kitchen sink at their visitors. But with ex-City defender Ayala, in particular, coming back to haunt his former employers, so Boro’s back-line held.
They made it. Three, huge points were heading north out of Norfolk.
Boro had a done a job. Did what needed to be done.