An extraordinary afternoon of SkyBet Championship football today left Watford promoted, Norwich stuck fast in the play-offs and Lewis Grabban firmly in the doghouse after being sent off for fighting just 26 minutes in to City’s 1-1 draw at Rotherham.
For the better part of 20 minutes, a wonder strike from his replacement Gary Hooper turned events on their head – particularly at Vicarage Road where the Hornets were ready with the bubbly after their lunchtime success.
City boss Alex Neil opted to defend that lead with an aggressive, attacking substitution. Four minutes from the end of normal time and Jordan Bowery’s far post header levelled – a goal that pinned Norwich down in fourth and let Watford win promotion.
Should Bournemouth beat Bolton at home on Monday night, the Cherries will likewise be promoted. Middlesbrough’s hopes for one of the two automatic places will have ended with a 4-3 defeat at Fulham who, of course, now head for Carrow Road next Sunday.
Grabban will miss both that and the two play-off games courtesy of a three-match ban for his mindless and automatic red card.
“I will speak to Lewis Grabban and that will be an internal matter for the club to deal with,” said Neil afterwards. Unamused, might be the understatement.
“I thought we were going to hold on,” he added. “I am disappointed. The boys stuck well to their task for much of the game.”
Fresh from kissing one gilt-edged chance to grab one of the automatic promotion places good-bye with the 1-0 home defeat by Middlesbrough -courtesy of a first-half own goal by Alexander Tettey – the Canaries managed to go one better in the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot stakes when it came to Grabban’s 26th minute exit.
For, apparently, digging a little rabbit punch into someone’s stomach. Whilst in a headlock.
If proved true on the video replays, the City striker’s red card for ‘fighting’ could have proved to be one of the most stupid – and costly – incidents of City’s recent history. Even if unduly provoked. Just don’t.
A three-match ban for the player himself might be the least of Neil’s concerns as his best-laid plans for a £150 million ticket to the Premier League’s promised land threatened to unravel in front of him in unbelievable fashion over the course of two, crucial contests.
The fact that Fulham would grab the lead against Boro before the break would merely deepen the sense of fury and frustration gathering around the Canary Nation. This wasn’t in the script. At all.
Wes Hoolahan was the next person to pay the price for Grabban’s moment of madness as the City chief decided that the Dubliner was a luxury he could ill-afford when a man down to a Rotherham side desperately fighting to avoid the drop.
Hooper came on for the departing Hoolahan as Neil was forced to make another change to a starting line-up minus the services of Steven Whittaker – Ryan Bennett slipping in alongside Sebastien Bassong as skipper Russell Martin switched back to right-back.
Cameron Jerome also found himself stuck on the bench as the Canary manager went for the greater energy Grabban brought to the fray. A decision that took all of 26 minutes to blow up in his face.
The half-time dressing room might well have been ripe with accusation; in fairness, at least City were still in the contest. It would be a minor miracle if they headed home with anything more than a stubborn point. Not enough to deny Watford a place back in the top flight this evening.
If results remained as they were Rotherham would also find themselves in the bottom three. Their need for a win against City’s ten men was as great as Norwich’s.
Only they enjoyed the advantage of an extra body. And a burning sense of injustice after being docked three points for fielding an ineligible player earlier in the season.
As if to prove miracles can still happen, on the hour-mark Hooper decided to take aim at the Millers’ goal.
Hollywood would have struggled to make it up, as the City substitute’s extraordinary strike into the top corner gave Norwich such an improbable lead.
Suddenly Watford’s promotion celebrations were on hold. And with Middlesbrough 3-2 down in an equally roller-coaster of a contest at Fulham, the promotion pendulum had swung back in Norfolk’s favour.
They were second. For now.
Jerome would replace Nathan Redmond for the game’s final 15 minutes as Neil went long and bold substitute-wise. It was another brave decision by the young Scot. Others would have tried to shut up shop with another defensive-minded player. Thrown a Gary O’Neil into the mixer.
Four minutes from the end of normal time and that decision came back to haunt Neil as Rotherham equalised off that back post Bowery header. As were Boro at Fulham. Briefly.
Six minutes of added-on time did nothing for shredded nerves up and down the land as another goal failed to materialise.
Watford were going up after all. As for Norwich, their route to the Premiership looks all-but certain to be via the play-offs. And to get to Wembley they will have to do it without Lewis Grabban.