Dreams really do come true – be it for managers, players or 40,000 delirious Canary fans at Wembley as two goals in three, extraordinary first-half minutes booked Norwich’s place back in the Premier League with a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough.
Delayed en route by traffic, Aitor Karanka’s fancied Boro side never really got going as Alex Neil’s Canaries flew out of the blocks and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck with goals from first Cameron Jerome and then – just three minutes later – by Nathan Redmond.
The same two had put Ipswich to the sword just nine days earlier in that epic derby semi-final success.
This afternoon they went one better – on the biggest of stages, in the biggest of games, they gave Norwich a two-goal cushion that they never really looked like surrendering.
The 33-year-old manager remains unbeaten away from home since his arrival in Norfolk in January. It is a record that will come under the sternest of tests next season.
That, however, is a lifetime away; right now the club only had one thought – to party like its 2015.
“This is the best way to go up – I’m over the moon,” said City’s Player of the Season Bradley Johnson, as the green and yellow end of Wembley went wild.
“To do it all in front if the fans…. Just look at them. It’s just been an incredible season for me – and now this,” he added.
Redmond, too, was lost for words as BBC Radio Norfolk found him immediately after the whistle.
“I can’t believe it – it felt so good to shut them up down that end,” said the City winger, his perfect, 15th minute strike being played out in front of a shell-shocked Boro end.
“This is the best way to go up – what an occasion. It’s brilliant,” said Wes Hoolahan, his long Canary career now reaching a new high. He – and his family – will celebrate long into the night. As will the rest of the Canary nation.
“We deserve this – we’ve been the best team this season by miles and what a night. What a night!”
The big question pre-match was whether Neil would throw Lewis Grabban straight back into the fray following his three-match ban – that and whether or not Graham Dorrans could oust Wesley from the manager’s starting plans.
In the event both the returning Grabban and the on-loan Dorrans had to settle for a place on the bench as the Scot went all 4-4-1-1 with Jerome slung right up top again with Hoolahan handed the freedom of those wide Wembley acres to do his stuff. History will have another perfect decision to record.
With the new Wembley living up to all expectations for the massed banks of Norwich City supporters handed the chance of a generation to savour one of the greatest days in the club’s history first-hand, it was the Canaries who kicked off as they looked to avoid the kind of false start that undermined that home clash with a stubborn and well-drilled Boro.
For those who fancied a quiet afternoon in front of the telly, events of the first ten minutes would have dashed any such hope as first Johnson and then Jelle Vossen smashed two volleys against respective bars within 30 seconds of
It proved just to be a warm-up routine for Jerome, who – having just missed out on a glancing header off a Steven Whittaker cross – wholly out-muscled ex-Canary defender Daniel Ayala on the edge of the Boro box, before slotting the sweetest of 12th minute finishes inside a startled and ill-placed keeper.
It didn’t end there.
Because Redmond had something special up his sleeve as Norwich founded the gear marked ‘Slick’. One touch wholly wrong-footed the Boro defence; the second floored them completely with a glorious strike into the bottom corner.
Norwich were 2-0 up with just 15 minutes on the clock. As for those 40,000 Canary supporters, they were in total heaven. A tight, cagey game was what they and most pundits had expected. Two goals in almost as many minutes blew that prediction apart.
Now both they and the two managers knew Middlesbrough would have to open up and take all manner of risks to claw their way back into this contest.
Do that and City could easily carve them apart again. Particularly if Hoolahan got into the party mood. He would have all the space he would ever need to spark a third and book the Canaries’ place for certain back into the top flight.
The first aim, however, was to get back into the dressing room with that two-goal advantage intact. In the event, City did it with relative ease as Boro ran short of ideas and invention. Norwich headed into the break in full control of proceedings.
Middlesbrough would need to deliver something very special in the second 45 minutes if they were to deny Neil now.
Boro lifted their game – as they had to – immediately after the restart, but with an invariably isolated Patrick Bamford yet to really find his range so the Canaries continued to hold firm. It was time for the likes of Alexander Tettey to dig in as all concerned recognised how important the next goal would prove.
Norwich just needed to keep the ball; keep Boro at arms length. To that end, Neil toyed with making his first change just after the hour mark when Dorrans stripped for action.
In the event, the City boss bided his time and kept his powder dry as the minutes ticked away and Middlesbrough’s frustrations grew.
Skipper Russell Martin had a sharp chance to kill the game with the third only for his 70th minute header to fly just over.
A double substitution followed as Grabban and Dorrans had their moment at the expense of Jerome and Hoolahan. The pair had done all that anyone could have asked of them as the pace of Grabban and the cool head of Dorrans set Boro’ a new set of problems in the game’s closing exchanges.
They had no answer. Nothing budged; nothing moved for Middlesbrough.
City walked it. Right back into the Promised Land.