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Norwich Return to Premier League in Style as Alex Neil's Preparation Pays off

Alex Dimond@alexdimondUK Lead WriterMay 25, 2015

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Cameron Jerome of Norwich City (10) sprays his team mates with champagne in celebration after the Sky Bet Championship Playoff Final between Middlesbrough and Norwich City at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2015 in London, England. Norwich City seal promotion to the Premier League with a 2-0 victory  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

WEMBLEY, London — Fifteen minutes of hard work, 75 minutes of defensive diligence, and now a summer of celebration for Norwich City.

The Canaries are a Premier League team once again, counting the rewards—and their fans revelling deep into the night—after a comfortable 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough in front of nearly 86,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.

Having beaten arch-rivals Ipswich to get to this stage, and then controlled the final almost from start to finish, this was almost the ideal way for the club to secure promotion back to the big time. A reported £120 million windfall—a television windfall that seems to grow every year—will please owner Delia Smith and the rest of the board, although only time will tell how much of that will have to be reinvested in the squad if they are to stay there.

“I think Middlesbrough have been great over the course of the season. They are a hard side to beat, but I thought if we played to our maximum we could win the game,” Alex Neil, Norwich’s 33-year-old manager, said afterwards.

“I’m not silly, I know how big the task is [now]. We’ll be one of the smallest sides in the Premier League, but there are other similar-sized clubs who have gone up and done well, so why can’t we?”

Norwich City FC @NorwichCityFC

PREMIER LEAGUE | Our heroes in yellow & green. #OurFinalStep http://t.co/3KCBPMjHDz

For Neil, it was his second promotion in as many seasons, having taken Hamilton Academical to the Scottish Premier League in very similar fashion 12 months ago. Since arriving in January, he has now overseen 17 wins in 26 games for his new club, losing on just four occasions.

It is tempting to wonder whether Norwich would have even had needed the play-offs if he’d been at Carrow Road from the start of the campaign.

Middlesbrough, late arrivers on the day in literal terms due to traffic issues, never got going on the pitch—the match was already out of reach by the time they began to play with anything approaching the coherence and vibrancy that was so evident during the play-off semi-final win over Brentford.

“Always when you lose a game it is difficult, and especially when you are losing the final,” Boro's Spanish manager, Aitor Karanka, said. “But the first thing I want to do is congratulate Norwich.

“We have to think about where we came from, and where we are. This club is improving, getting better every single day. We have done a very big step, but we were not ready to play in the Premier League next season.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Despair for Grant Leadbitter (7) and Ben Gibson of Middlesbrough (6) in defeat after the Sky Bet Championship Playoff Final between Middlesbrough and Norwich City at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by
Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Middlesbrough actually won both previous games between the two teams this season, but as always, such details can be misleading. The first game, a 4-0 Boro win at the Riverside, came prior to Neil’s reign, with Chris Hughton’s side in the midst of a precipitous drop in form that would ultimately cost Hughton his job.

The second, April’s 1-0 defeat at Carrow Road that effectively ended Norwich’s automatic-promotion hopes, came on a Friday evening after both sides had played on Tuesday—hardly ideal preparation.

Middlesbrough’s preparations were similarly affected this time around, despite the best-laid plans. Karanka actually brought his side down to London early as part of his approach, taking them to Saturday’s League Two play-off final to give them a taste of the occasion they would soon experience. It seemed to be the planning of a man in full control, but on Monday, the team bus ended up needing a police escort to get to the stadium, eventually arriving less than an hour prior to kick-off.

Karanka insisted it was not unusual, adding: “It is not the first time. It is sometimes the same, because I like to manage how long we are in the changing room. I prefer to arrive at that time, and that is not why we lost today.

“As a player, I like to arrive at the pitch and go to the warm-up as soon as possible. Yes [there was traffic], but it wasn’t a problem.”

Phil Roscoe @PhilRoscoeTV

Middlesbrough defender Ben Gibson said the fact that the team bus arrived late at Wembley today would be "an excuse" @itvfootball

Neil was not convinced: “I don’t think that was planned. I think they’d stayed at The Grove (near Watford), and didn’t factor it in in terms of traffic. Any little advantage that can help us, I’m delighted with.”

Middlesbrough’s sluggish start rather suggested that, if it was planned, it was certainly not the correct approach. Bradley Johnson’s early half-volley off the crossbar was matched (in almost identical fashion) by Jelle Vossen just seconds later, but after that, Norwich made the decisive interventions of the game.

Boro defender Daniel Ayala was caught on his heels by Cameron Jerome, the rest of the Boro defence seemingly frozen in time as the powerful forward waltzed into the box and beat goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, who really should have covered his angles far better, at his near post.

Then the defensive unit as a whole broke down, as Norwich threatened to take the tie out of reach. Steven Whittaker spotted Nathan Redmond’s unchecked run into the box, the winger taking a touch before unleashing an unerring low shot across Konstantopoulos that found the bottom corner.

Under 15 minutes gone, Boro were in a real hole.

“It is not about intensity, it is about the mistakes,” Karanka said afterwards. “When you make mistakes it is difficult to win games, and especially finals.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Cameron Jerome of Norwich City (10) is congratulated by Martin Olsson (23) and team mates as he scores their first goal during the Sky Bet Championship Playoff Final between Middlesbrough and Norwich City at Wembley Stadium on M
Tom Dulat/Getty Images

With a comfortable early advantage secured, Neil had the luxury of being able to change things around, rearranging his side into something resembling a narrow 4-1-4-1 formation that promised a tough path to goal, with Alex Tettey screening in front of the defence and Jerome upsetting the Boro defence with his pace and physicality.

Boro tried to get the ball wide, particularly to Albert Adomah, but too often they found themselves surrounded by yellow shirts who took their defensive obligations with admirable seriousness. The scoreline played a part, but such diligence is also often a symptom of a manager who demands responsibility and inspires trust.

“I believe in the message I am trying to convey, and I believe they can carry out,” Neil said. “If you have good quality players who are willing to work hard, then I believe you can get success.”

Sam Tighe @stighefootball

Shed a tear fir Aitor Karanka. No matter what he tried, couldn't recover from early blows http://t.co/JH7NnfmLt9 #Boro #playofffinal

His opposite number, Karanka, tried to change the game in the second half—and the addition of Emilio Nsue at right-back definitely offered Adomah the support he needed to finally make an impression—but, with Vossen out of sorts, Lee Tomlin isolated and Patrick Bamford clearly not fully fit, chances proved elusive even as the team in red began to control more and more of the play. Ayala, a giant of a centre-back, had a couple of chances from corners, but in truth, it was Norwich who came closer to the third goal, with Russell Martin heading over from just six yards out.

From early in the first half, you sensed that Boro lacked the belief that they could mount a comeback.

“The one thing we were criticized for in the last game [against Boro] was the slow start,” Neil noted. “In terms of their starts this season, when they’ve taken advantage, they’ve tended to go on and win, but I think if you look when they’ve gone a goal down they’ve only come back once.

“When we got the second, I was very confident from then on we would see the game out.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Alex Neil manager of Norwich City celebrates after the Sky Bet Championship Playoff Final between Middlesbrough and Norwich City at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2015 in London, England. Norwich City seal promotion to the Premier L
Tom Dulat/Getty Images

The final whistle sparked the customary celebrations for one half of the stadium, as the Middlesbrough fans poured out after a brief pause to give their side a generous round of applause for their efforts this season. Bamford would seem certain to be in the Premier League somewhere next term—on loan most likely, with Chelsea probably a jump too far at the moment—but for the rest, they will surely have to earn their way to the top flight by better negotiating the Championship snake pit next term.

“You can see the reaction of the fans. I think they had lost their happiness and this season the club got their happiness again,” Karanka noted. “If I have to mark the players, it is 15 out of 10, because again at the beginning of the season, we had a lot of squads who spent a lot more money than us.

“I know it is hard, especially for the players and club, when they were very excited about this game. They have to recover again as soon as possible. I want to transmit to them only positive things, because it is not possible to start our pre-season thinking about last season.”

EFL @EFL

The pain & glory of the @SkyBetChamp #PlayOffFinal http://t.co/uOzIKgYPJr

Getting out of the Championship is difficult, staying out of it even harder—a challenge Norwich must now steel themselves for. Ten of their starting XI on Monday were regular contributors in last season’s relegation campaign (Jerome the only addition), meaning these two seasons would rather seem to have established the fact that this squad is good enough to reach the top flight, but not good enough to stay there.

The two significant differences from two years ago (it is worth noting that Norwich stayed up a couple of times prior to that) seem likely to be Neil’s demanding presence as manager and the flourishing skills of Nathan Redmond, who has grown with a full season under his belt and must have quietly impressed the watching England manager Roy Hodgson with his work rate and impact on Monday.

Nevertheless, additions will surely need to be made, adding to the grit and grind the team displayed at Wembley with the (expensive to acquire) additional class that the Premier League demands.

“We’ll need to add a few quality signings, but the one thing I will do is stick with the hardcore group of the squad and make sure they get their opportunity,” Neil noted. “I think they have shown enough over the last few seasons [to deserve that].

“The next couple of days will be busy. We had two plans in place in terms of recruitment, and now we need to have a hard look at that.

"I think my biggest challenge is going to be expectation. Because obviously two years of back-to-back promotions mean people expect us to go 'boom!' and do really well in the Premier League. But it will be extremely difficult. The gulf between the Premier League and the Championship is vast."

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Nathan Redmond (L) and Bradley Johnson of Norwich City celebrate promotion after the Sky Bet Championship Playoff Final between Middlesbrough and Norwich City at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2015 in London, England. Norwich City s
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

For the manager, it is such considerations that will almost instantly eclipse any moments of celebration and reflection, the demands that come with being good at your job (although he will fly out for a well-deserved holiday on Thursday).

Paul Lambert’s dismissal as Aston Villa boss in February meant that, for the first time since the formation, the English top flight did not have a Scottish manager. Neil’s presence now rectifies that, heightening the focus on a man already guaranteed to achieve plenty of attention for his youth and stratospheric rise to date.

Like many of his countrymen before him, Neil seems to possess the tactical acumen and training-ground presence to deliver a well-drilled, well-prepared side—a man ready and willing to use both the carrot and the stick in pursuit of what he wants.

Just as that ultimately confirmed their comfortable victory on Monday, such qualities should help Norwich significantly (it is perhaps worth noting Hamilton started the SPL campaign this season very well).

It will not guarantee their survival, however, and they will have to invest in the squad. Fortunately, they will now have a fair bit of money to do so.

All quotes obtained firsthand.