Fight on or raise the white flag is the stark choice for Norwich City
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That nauseous feeling the lights are going out on Norwich City’s Premier League adventure was magnified by the wave of euphoria which engulfed Craven Cottage.
Fulham’s players stopped short of an open top bus tour of the ground but the scale of the celebrations at the end underlined how big a win this was for Felix Magath, and the desperate conflicting forces it inevitably unleashed on Neil Adams’ squad.
Hugo Rodallega slid fully 10 yards on his knees from the centre circle to dive on top of his delirious white-shirted team mates. The Cottagers’ home support smashed their clap banners for all they were worth. In the midst of the maelstrom sat John Ruddy on his own in his penalty area; processing the same dark thoughts felt by those 3,000 plus in attendance behind the opposite goal and many more far beyond this idyllic setting by the Thames which induces the most sour sensation for the Canaries.
Adams and the rest of his dejected players acknowledged the voluminous backing from their own before making a swift exit. They were unwanted gatecrashers at someone else’s party.
Norwich had played with a bravery and a refreshing attacking commitment that was a credit to the work both Adams and his coaching team had imparted in a ridiculously abbreviated build-up period.
But City’s profligacy was again the root cause of their undoing and no managerial change or different personnel in the technical area can directly address that issue. This latest sample can be filed in the same category as the league trips to Cardiff and West Ham, when Norwich’s dominance of territory and possession carved out a stream of missed opportunities.
David Stockdale’s personal crusade against City continued with a stunning reflex stop to thrust out a right-arm as the rest of his body contorted across his six-yard box in the opposite direction in denying Ricky van Wolfswinkel a first goal since the opening day of the season. That one act encapsulated the Dutchman’s frustrations in a Norwich shirt. The movement and the predatory sense of anticipation propelled him perfectly onto Martin Olsson’s driven cross. The volley and the connection were technically proficient but he found Stockdale in obdurate mood again, just like their own personal duel in the FA Cup third round tie at Carrow Road, when he conjured a save former boss Rene Meulensteen likened to Gordon Banks’ famous stop to deny the great Pele.
How the course of Norwich’s season may have differed markedly - both for their club record signing and Chris Hughton - if his close-range header back in January had clinched the cup win City merited.
Adams’ line-up was bold in selection and approach. Van Wolfswinkel was afforded the type of support he will have long craved, with Nathan Redmond operating centrally and Robert Snodgrass at the point of a midfield diamond. It looked comfortable, it felt right and for long spells of a contest fuelled by an intensity befitting the fraught context, Norwich exerted an impressive degree of control. Yet they fell to a striker in red hot scoring form and a glimpse of Lewis Holtby’s set-piece sorcery.
City had struggled to contain Hugo Rodallega all afternoon inside their own penalty area, but they were punished just the once. Once was all it took.
Adams left a scene of devastation in the away dressing room to rightly praise his players’ efforts and sound the trumpets for an epic finale that would justifiably carve out a niche among the likes of Coventry, West Brom, Wigan and Fulham in remarkable feats of survival escapology.
The Cottagers won four of their last five games under Roy Hodgson in 2008 to send Reading down on goal difference on the final day; but such incidences remain in the consciousness of football followers for their sheer scarcity.
Norwich have already been consigned to the Championship, if you accept the majority view, which correctly surmises they must overcome either one of two Premier League title challengers, the dethroned champions at Old Trafford or the FA Cup finalists and serial Champions League qualifiers Arsenal to enginer a safe passage.
Adams and his players are the only people who matter now. It is irrelevant what anyone else thinks in trying to solve a puzzle where the only guarantee is unpredictability as the pressure and the tension mount.
If they harbour the same misgivings and deep reservations prevalent outside the bubble then City’s final quartet of Premier League games will serve as a painful and brutal reminder of the type of player and the type of club they will only view from afar for the foreseeable future.
A future that would contain a tangle of unpalatable scenarios and shocks triggered by a sizeable financial shortfall in revenue streams.
None of that is for Adams or his players to concern themselves with. They have a herculean task of their own to accomplish. They either fight on or raise the white flag, and even that may not be enough without stumbles from their rivals.
The triumphalism of Fulham’s players and fans at the final whistle suggested the Cottagers felt they had inflicted a mortal blow. Adams’ priority is not a tactical plan to stun a rampant Liverpool, it is to dredge a response from such deep despair.