It has felt a matter of when and not if Norwich will be promoted for a few weeks but results elsewhere dictated they will have to wait at least another seven days to seal an immediate return to the Premier League, despite the Championship leaders overcoming lowly Derby here courtesy of a delicious Kieran Dowell free-kick. Victory over Bournemouth at Carrow Road next Saturday would clinch promotion and, while Daniel Farke insists his players are not yet dancing on tables in delight, the finish line is tantalisingly close.
Farke, hands in pockets of his black trenchcoat, was a picture of calm until erupting into a fit of rage with less than 20 minutes to play, when Todd Cantwell’s poor final pass saw a slick attack unravel. There is no need for Norwich to fret but Derby are not in such a position of luxury.
Birmingham’s victory at home to Stoke leaves Derby in a perilous position with five games to play. Worse still, their fate is not in their own hands, with Rotherham, who currently occupy the final relegation spot, armed with four games in hand.
If Norwich and Watford are promoted automatically and Bournemouth join them in the Premier League via the play-offs, it will be the first time that all three relegated clubs return to the top flight together. Still, this was not a box-office performance by Norwich and they allowed their grip to wane.
Oliver Skipp and Kenny McLean were again commanding in midfield but Norwich’s search for a second goal was ultimately fruitless. Cantwell sent a dribbling shot at David Marshall after McLean stole possession on halfway and before the interval Teemu Pukki dropped a deft header wide. In the end, they were fortunate Derby did not level into stoppage time, when Graeme Shinnie ballooned over after Colin Kazim-Richards seized the ball from Tim Krul, who had gone walkabout in the Norwich goal.
By the time Jamal Lowe scored his second and Swansea’s third goal at Millwall, the Norwich players had not long emerged on to the pitch for the warmup and, with Brentford also earning victory at Preston, they will have to wait a little longer to seal promotion.
Sky Sports did not televise the game but a crew sent to Pride Park to fetch post-match interviews in the event of promotion left before kick-off with the champagne on ice for another week. Norwich were prepared for all eventualities – owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones were among those to make the trip – and fulfilled their aim on arrival, even if they departed without securing the ultimate prize.
Norwich dominated the first half and deservedly took the lead when Dowell thrashed a left-footed free-kick into the top corner from the right edge of the area after being fouled by Craig Forsyth, one of three Derby players to pick up a booking in a one-sided opening quarter. Derby were dishevelled defensively and Cantwell and the marauding Max Aarons kept the hosts on their toes throughout, the latter hugging the touchline and galloping forward.
Derby had their moments but struggled to pressure the Norwich goal. They failed to register a shot on target until eight minutes after the break, when Kazim-Richards peeled off the Norwich defence and drilled low at Krul.
Moments later the impressive Manchester United loanee Teden Mengi forced Krul into a fine save, the goalkeeper sprawling to his left to prevent the ball nestling in. Tom Lawrence sent a first-half shot dipping wide from outside the box and Patrick Roberts, Norwich’s first signing upon promotion two years ago, had a strike blocked by Grant Hanley. Roberts showed flickers of magic but the visitors did their best to keep a familiar face at arm’s length.
Krul yelled at his defence when the substitute Louie Sibley was allowed to take aim from distance and the goalkeeper shook his head in frustration as Norwich made hard work of closing the game out. Farke gave Pukki, shackled by a youthful Derby defence, a breather with six minutes to play and then Norwich survived a lucky escape when Shinnie blazed over.