An afternoon of heroes, villains and extraordinary derby drama finally saw the Canaries book their place at Wembley with a thrilling 3-1 play-off semi-final win over Ipswich Town to complete a 4-2 aggregate success.
Billed as the derby to end all derbies, the game took 48 minutes to explode into life following last weekend’s tightly contested 1-1 draw. But when it did explode, boy did it…
Christophe Berra handled Nathan Redmond’s strike on the line as the Canaries flew at their visitors from the restart. Wes Hoolahan – restored to the City starting line up by boss Alex Neil – converted from the spot as Berra saw red.
A man and a goal up, Ipswich briefly rallied via a Tommy Smith leveller only for Redmond and Cameron Jerome to book City’s place in a play-off final against Middlesbrough – the club’s first trip to Wembley in 30 long years.
The superior quality of a Redmond, in particular, had made all the difference; two, big assists plus the crucial second goal. His name would now figure very large in derby folklore as Carrow Road erupted in unbridled relief and joy come the final whistle.
They were going to Wem-ber-lee.
“We were in control of the tie – at all stages,” Neil told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards. The Scot was never going to be one to give way to doubt.
“I was completely confident in my players and I fully expected us to go through.”
His individual legend will be helped by events either side of half-time, however. Something was said. Something that hit the spot perfectly.
“I think I was just telling them to calm down,” said Neil afterwards, quizzed as to what magic wand he had waved at the interval to send Norwich flying out of the blocks come the restart.
“I could sense the fans were getting a little agitated – they expect us to be 3-0 up after ten minutes. Against Ipswich that’s never going to be the case.
“So it was a case of ‘Calm down! The game is going to slow down, open up and that’s where our quality players will make a difference – and that’s ultimately what proved to be the case.”
Even if it needed a helping hand to get the Norwich party rocking.
“Wes [Hoolahan] has managed to slip Nathan [Redmond] in, he’s managed to cut back onto his good side, the ball is going into the net – and the player has ultimately stopped it with his hands. So it’s the right decision.
“After that we showed real bravery – because the pressure was on us to go and break them down. We showed some real good quality and managed to score another two.”
As many would have wished, Neil found room for the return of Hoolahan for the second leg; Graham Dorrans being the one to make way. The manager’s faith would be richly rewarded.
The alternative was to drop Redmond, but as the opening leg had proved the England Under-21 winger gave Tyrone Mings something more to think about. It was a ploy the City boss repeated. To stunning effect come the second period.
Norwich clearly wanted no repeats of the home clash with Middlesbrough when they froze in the headlights and conceded early. However, the early exchanges belonged to the visitors as Town pumped the ball long for Daryl Murphy to feed on.
City needed to settle down; calm a few nerves. The Rock of Bassong was far too prominent for the manager’s liking.
Come the 15th minute and order was beginning to be restored; skipper Russell Martin forced Paul Anderson to hack clear off his line following their third corner of the contest.
It was a rare chance – at either end. Hoolahan, in particular, had yet to settle into proceedings; his touch was eluding him. He found it finally to lay in Jonny Howson.
Alas his finish wasn’t of the Portman Road variety; it was scratchy, nervy. And summed up the game thus far quite neatly. The occasion was proving overwhelming. Two, solid banks of four had held sway.
From the restart, City were to be found pouring into the Town box – fired up, no doubt, by the thoughts of the manager at the break. Again, however, the one, clear chance failed to materialise as Redmond discovered a fresh urgency to his game.
Few would fancy the prospect of extra-time and penalties for the right to face Boro’ at Wembley.
The game erupted three minutes into the second period. Steven Whittaker set the high drama in motion as he first won the ball and then set City streaming forward through Hoolahan and Redmond.
The latter’s final shot was handled on the line by Berra; he went with a straight red as Hoolahan went to pick up the ball for the penalty. The Dubliner’s conversion was as cool as you like. City were a goal and a man to the good – the road to Wembley was opening up before them.
Keep a clean sheet. That’s all they needed to do. And make that one-man advantage count.
Town, bravely, kept two up top; Anderson dropped back into the back four. Ipswich would go even longer in their suddenly desperate search for a way back into the contest. Martin and Bassong keep their heads and the final would be theirs.
They didn’t – briefly – as a deep free-kick was headed back into the danger zone and there was an unmarked Smith to dig out a sharp leveller on the hour. Could the ten men of Town go one better and carve out an extraordinary win? Or could the Canaries find themselves another hero?
Answer, yes. N Redmond. Martin Olsson’s low cross found Howson who made the smartest decision of his recent life in teeing up the City winger whose low finish was all that the occasion demanded.
Ipswich had been level for just four minutes. For the third time over the two-legged contest, the Norfolk side had their noses in front. A third goal would kill it now.
Jerome would kiss a first glorious chance good-bye as City tried to put the game finally beyond the neighbour’s reach. Dorrans would arrive in place of Hoolahan for the final 20 minutes as Neil looked to see this out.
They did that in style courtesy of a fabulous pass from the flying Redmond which Jerome stabbed – albeit agonisingly slowly – home for his 20th goal of the season.
City were home and hosed. Only Middlesbrough now stand between them and that £120m ticket back to the biggest of big times.
And in Alex Neil they might just have the man who deals in fairy tales.