Norwich City won the £120 million jackpot on Monday as they beat belongs Middlesbrough 2-0 at Wembley in the Championship play-off final.
Alex Neil’s side raced into a two-goal lead inside the first 15 minutes thanks to goals from Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond and that early blitz was enough to secure a lucrative return to the Premier League just 12 months after the pain of relegation.
Winning promotion will also add to the growing reputation of the 33-year-old Neil, their young manager who hails from Bellshill, the same North Lanarkshire town as Sir Matt Busby.
Neil guided Hamilton into the Scottish Premiership via the play-offs last season, and now he has led Norwich to promotion in the same fashion after a remarkable 17 wins in the 25 games since he was hired to replace the sacked Neil Adams.
Norwich hadn’t played at Wembley since 1985 when they won the League Cup final against Sunderland, yet within 15 minutes it became apparent the 30-year wait would be worth it.
The Middlesbrough’s team bus was caught in the busy bank holiday traffic en route to Wembley, arriving later than expected and Aitor Karanka’s players appeared unsettled by that disruption and the flaws that would undermine them were immediately on display when a sloppy Dean Whitehead clearance fell to Norwich midfielder Bradley Johnson, who smashed a left-footed strike against the crossbar.
That narrow escape prompted a brief surge of adrenaline from Middlesbrough as they charged straight down the other end and hit the bar themselves through Jelle Vossen’s curling 25-yard drive. But, fatally, Middlesbrough couldn’t quell their nerves and more lackadaisical defending proved their downfall in the 12th minute.
Whitehead put his team-mate Daniel Ayala in trouble with a slow backpass and Jerome pounced to devastating effect. He muscled Ayala off the ball and advanced into the penalty area before guiding a cool finish past goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos from a tight angle at his near post.
Jerome’s 21st goal of the season was a terrible one to concede and Karanka’s team still looked shell-shocked when Norwich swept forward to double their lead three minutes later. This was a far more emphatic strike from Neil’s team, whose confidence, already high after their play-off semi-final win over bitter rivals Ipswich, had gone through the roof in the moments after Jerome’s opener.
They swaggered towards the penalty area in a blur of quick passes before Steven Whittaker played a precise ball into Redmond, the young Norwich winger matching the quality of the approach play as he got a touch before driving a fine finish into the far corner.
Despite beating Norwich twice this season, Middlesbrough had been completely over-run and spent the rest of the half just trying to recover their composure. It didn’t help that Patrick Bamford, the gifted young striker loaned to Karanka by his friend and Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, struggled to make an impact as Norwich’s industrious midfield cut off the supply lines.
After a first half that must have exceeded their worst nightmares, Middlesbrough made a brighter start to the second period and Bamford’s shot on the turn forced a sprawling save from John Ruddy. Ayala had a header blocked on the line by Lewis Grabban in the closing stages.
But Middlesbrough’s revival came too late to disturb Neil’s team, who cruised to the finish line while their yellow-clad fans got the promotion party started.