Norwich City prepare to join the elite

NORWICH CITY 2, COVENTRY CITY 2: Norwich City’s penchant for clinching promotion in far-flung places – or in one case without actually kicking a ball on the day in question – may in past years have left many of their Carrow Road regulars in danger of feeling a little left out.

Not since 1960 have the Canaries booked a place in the division above by winning the decisive game on their own ground, while the travelling hordes have been able to celebrate at such assorted venues as Brisbane Road, Fratton Park, Hillsborough, the Odsal Stadium, The Valley and, seven days ago, Fratton Park again.

Satellite TV and beam-backs have brought distant victories much closer to home in recent years, however, and there was no need for anyone to miss out as City turned their final Championship match – for some years, one hopes – into one big party for their seventh 26,000-plus crowd of the season.

It was a day of presentations, decorations and peculiar celebrations of a kind seldom witnessed before in these parts, when early arrivals basked in the bright sunshine and carnival mood and those who lingered after the final whistle were treated to some bizarre sights, not least that of manager Paul Lambert choreographing his players’ goalmouth dives to a level not often seen outside top international competition.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, competing for attention, were the final 90 minutes of football in an extraordinary season.

There was little at stake for either side, of course. Any chance of the Canaries getting an unexpected bonus, in the shape of the Championship title, was ruled out before kick-off by news of a heavy fine, rather than a points deduction, for Queens Park Rangers over transfer irregularities, while visitors Coventry City were in safe territory thanks to a solid run of results under new boss Andy Thorn.

That being the case, it was better entertainment than might have been expected, especially in the second half, when a very open contest provided four goals in the space of 11 minutes.

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The Sky Blues matched Norwich’s attacking endeavours in the early stages and goalkeeper John Ruddy had to dive to his left to push away a powerful shot from full-back Chris Hussey, while only a timely block by Russell Martin diverted Carl Baker’s shot over the bar.

At the other end, defender Zak Whitbread’s goalbound header, from a David Fox corner, was blocked, before skipper Grant Holt headed wide from Andrew Surman’s flag-kick.

City came very close to taking the lead four minutes before the break when top scorer and player of the season Holt connected with Marc Tierney’s cross but goalkeeper Michael Quirke managed to block his header with his leg and, as Andrew Crofts followed up, Jordan Clarke hacked the ball clear.

Eight minutes after the break, the Sky Blues took the lead with an untidy goal.

A corner was played short to Baker, whose cross was met by a header from defender Richard Keogh that was cleared, but only as far as Lukas Jutkiewicz, whose low shot was forced home by Keogh on the line.

Within three minutes, however, City were level as Holt scored his 23rd goal of the season. Tierney collected Surman’s pass wide on the left and sent over another perfect cross for Holt to beat Quirke with a firm header.

Holt, and then Surman, departed to huge ovations, to be replaced by Premier League loanees Henri Lansbury and Dani Pacheco, players who could find themselves on opposite sides when England meet Spain in the European Under-21 Championships next month.

This time, however, the two substitutes were very much on the same wavelength and they combined to produce a classic goal. Lansbury held the ball up just inside the Coventry area being slipping a pass to Pacheco, and the Spaniard produced a neat dummy, a sidestep and a perfect finish by tucking away his second goal for the club.

It looked as if the Canaries were in the mood for a goal flurry to cement their place as the division’s top scorers, but within two minutes Coventry were back on terms.

Baker found Hussey on the left and his low cross into the six-yard box presented Jutkiewicz with a simple sidefoot finish.

Norwich almost restored their lead when Pacheco curled a free-kick against the crossbar, Whitbread missing a golden opportunity when he put the rebound just the wrong side of the post.

Coventry skipper Sammy Clingan, one of two ex-Canaries on show, kept out Elliott Ward’s header while guarding the post from a corner and, after Adam Drury had been introduced for his first senior action since February, the hosts came closest to snatching the extra two points.

Drury had a shot blocked, Wes Hoolahan sliced another chance wide after the impressive Pacheco put him clear on the left, and with three minutes to go, more great work by Pacheco carved out an opening for Jackson, but after a golden four weeks in front of goal, he jabbed his shot the wrong side of the post. On this occasion, it was not to be his day.

For once, there was to be no dramatic stoppage-time winner, but for once, it didn’t matter. City’s late heroics this season had made sure of that, and they had exhausted their supply of nerve-shredding finishes. It was time for the celebrations to begin.

It took the best part of an hour after the game for City to complete their lap of honour, for the players to join their families and perform their individual party pieces for the crowd, give interviews to the media, and for Lambert to appear at his post-match Press conference to discuss what next season may hold. And he was making no rash forecasts about his players’ chances when taking on some of the best teams in Europe.

“They have just earned the right to play them,” said Lambert.

“One could be the European champions in a couple of weeks time. Chelsea . . . you are talking about teams on a different stratosphere from us.

“You see it week in, week out, on TV how good the players are and how good the teams are.

“Everything is there, but we have earned the right. We will try everything we can to enjoy it, but results? We will see.”