Norwich Back in the Premier League

At the final whistle, the tireless Bradley Johnson fell to his knees, a mixture of exhaustion and elation.

Published: 26th May 2015 10:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th May 2015 10:47 AM   |  A+A-


Norwich City fans celebrate after Norwich City won the English Championship play off final football match between Middlesbrough and Norwich City at Wembley Stadium in London. |AFP

Norwich City deservedly reached the Premier League because they played like a team that belongs in the top flight, being more organised, confident and clinical than Middlesbrough. On the ball, City, as their supporters sang, and on their way to the Premier League.

 Norwich went for the jugular from the first whistle, scoring through the outstanding pair of Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond within 15 minutes, and never looking like surrendering the lead. Their midfield was terrific, especially the likes of Alex Tettey, who simply refused to let Boro build up any moves of real substance. Their defence gave Patrick Bamford no room.

At the final whistle, the tireless Bradley Johnson fell to his knees, a mixture of exhaustion and elation. He had given everything to achieve this dream. Players leapt into the crowd, embracing relatives.

This meant more than pounds 120m. This meant the world to Norwich.

 A smile resided on the face of Alex Neil, especially when John Ruddy soaked him in champagne and then Johnson hoisted him on his shoulders. Neil cut a composed figure afterwards, reflecting on the need to celebrate with a couple of beers and see his family, smiling at the thought of being the only Scottish manager in the Premier League, and joking that while Aitor Karanka had been able to take pre-match advice from Jose Mourinho, he had sought the counsel only of his mother.

Beneath the quips lies a fiercely-driven manager, whose ability to motivate and shape a balanced team propelled Norwich up. Delia Smith suggested that he should be knighted. Sir Alex in the Premier League?

Hasn't that been done?

 Neil took all the compliments in his stride but it really has been a fairytale season for him, starting in front of 730 people at New Douglas Park with Hamilton Academical beating Arbroath in a Scottish League Cup tie and climaxing with Championship play-off glory at Wembley with 85,636 in attendance. This was only Neil's 25th match in charge of Norwich, he surrendered his player registration only in January and will not complete his Pro-Licence for 18 months. Not bad for a 33-year-old.

Some Hamilton players cried when their manager left and no wonder.

Neil's clearly inspirational but with an understanding of the hard work required for Norwich to survive next season. "The gulf between the Premier League and the Championship is vast,'' he acknowledged.

 Yet Carrow Road will be a vibrant arena of raucous and unconditional support for the team, giving them hope against the many vaunted visitors coming their way when the fixtures are announced on June 17. Fortunately for Norwich, their serial nemesis, Luis Suarez, has moved on from the elite ranks.

 This was also a victory for David McNally, the chief executive who helped target Neil and bring him south. This was especially a huge moment for Delia Smith, the majority shareholder of Norwich who marched across the pitch, clutching a "we are going up" flag, and being handed the play-off trophy by her captain, Russell Martin. Smith lifted the trophy to the acclaim of 40,000 fans.

During the game, Wembley's big screens showed Smith at one point, triggering a mass chant from the Norwich hordes of "come on, let's be a aving you". Smith and her husband, Michael Wynn-Jones, will be warmly welcomed on their return to the Premier League, not only because of their hospitality, but because they represent what owners should be.

It would have been the same if Steve Gibson, Boro's magnificent, munificent owner, had gone up. These are conscientious individuals who see their clubs as vehicles for local pride and passion, giving people a chance to dream, not as potential cash machines to be plundered.

 Gibson looked on as Middlesbrough's dream ended for another year. Boro's chairman was at Wembley early, attending the Football League lunch with Smith (no pressure on the cooks there).

Bizarrely, his team turned up only at 2pm, an hour before kick-off.

Karanka shrugged off any criticism, saying he had expected traffic a " "it's London, not Middlesbrough" a " and that he wanted to cut it fine so the pre-match wait did not become too onerous on the players. It did not seem to affect Norwich's.

Middlesbrough's advance party had long been in situ. The club sent in four decorators at 6am, turning their dressing-room red, hanging up pictures of the players and placing a large club crest across the floor. Outside, Boro supporters were everywhere, making their way down the A1 on Monday morning or heading up on the Tube after a night's revelry in Trafalgar Square. They love a lion. Teesside had been gripped by play-off fever with the word "believe" plastered everywhere, even on roadwork signs.

Norwich also believed. Men in their late 60s ambled up Olympic Way in bowler hats with yellow ribbons. Two women strolled nearby with yellow beads woven into their hair. Young men hurried towards the ground, clutching inflatable canaries. Face-paint was de rigeur.

Wembley was coloured red, yellow and green. Like Boro, Norwich could easily have taken almost double their 40,000 allocation. This play-off was how the FA Cup final should be with fans properly looked after.

Even the Club Wembley seats were full of fans showing their colours.

They were even full for the start of each half, turning their backs on the bars. The first period belonged to Norwich. Their mood was sharper, hungrier, the players believing in themselves more. They looked Premier League players, reflecting the background of many, feeling home on the bigger stage. The ambition was also seen in the demonstrative figure of Neil, who stood at the edge of his technical area, shouting support and instructions to players who were so well-drilled anyway.

Neil's men dominated central midfield. Tettey sat in front of the back-four, disrupting Boro moves. Johnson, Wes Hoolahan and Jonny Howson ran all over central midfield, closing Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton down, and starting moves.

 The sides exchanged early strikes, both Johnson and Jelle Vossen hitting the frame of the goal, before Norwich demonstrated a more ruthless streak, taking the lead after 12 minutes. Daniel Ayala was too weak when Jerome hounded him, and Dimi Konstantopoulos proved an insufficient barrier in the Boro goal.

Norwich joy intensified within three minutes, following a goal from Redmond that was exquisite and lengthy in its construction. The ball was passed around crisply, involving Redmond, Howson, Hoolahan, Johnson, Jerome, Howson again, and Redmond again before Steven Whittaker took charge. The full-back accelerated the attack, sliding the ball down the inside-right channel for Redmond, who controlled the ball elegantly with his left foot and then finished emphatically with his right.

Roy Hodgson was present, watching the England Under-21 international.

 Karanka made changes but Norwich stood firm. Ayala headed a corner over. On the hour, Bamford finally escaped Martin and Sebastien Bassong. He collected a neat, low pass from Lee Tomlin, turned and sent a shot goalwards that Ruddy saved. "We are going up," came the chant from the Norwich fans, almost self-consciously at first but then lustily.

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