ROVERS’ 14-match unbeaten run in the Championship came to an end in heartbreaking fashion at a fervent Carrow Road last night as Bradley Johnson and Lewis Grabban condemned them to a first league defeat since March 12.
After Johnson struck in the 87th minute salt was rubbed into the wounds in injury time when Grabban, who was the match-winner for his former club Bournemouth the last time Gary Bowyer’s side lost in the Championship, netted his second of a dramatic evening.
Rovers had threatened to blow Norwich away in the first 10 minutes after Tom Cairney broke the deadlock in sensational style after just 41 seconds.
But Neil Adams’ team, who have come down from the Premier League, hit back impressively and were level at half-time after referee Graham Scott gifted them a penalty which Grabban tucked away on the rebound after man-of-the-match Paul Robinson had saved his initial spot-kick.
The Canaries, who had failed to win any of the previous 10 meetings between the sides, were ultimately worthy winners.
But Rovers, after a spirited rearguard action, will feel they did enough to merit a point.
Bowyer made one change from the team which started the Rudy Gestede-inspired 2-1 triumph at Blackpool on Saturday as Lee Williamson was recalled at the expense of Josh King.
That meant Cairney was switched from the centre to the right of midfield.
But former Rovers left back Martin Olsson was not the man marking Cairney after he was hit with a three-match ban by the FA for making physical contact with the referee prior to his sending off in Norwich’s 1-0 opening day defeat at Wolves.
With Olsson’s suspended, and denied the chance to go head to head with his twin brother Martin Olsson, the Canaries were unchanged from the team which started their 3-0 home win over Watford on Saturday.
But their hopes of keeping another clean sheet were shattered within the first minute as Cairney scored what will be one of the goals of the season.
If you think the talented midfielder’s strike in the opening day 1-1 draw at home to Cardiff City was good, well this was better.
A deep free kick from Markus Olsson was headed down by Gestede into the path of Cairney who did superbly to adjust his body and send a stunning 22-yard half-volley into the top corner.
And shell-shocked Norwich could have no complaints had they fallen further behind soon after.
After Jordan Rhodes had a strong penalty appeal turned down, Alex Baptiste headed over from the corner that followed.
Then it was the turn of Gestede, who was simply unplayable in the opening stages, to go close as he flicked a Craig Conway free kick inches the post, before Cairney tested John Ruddy from 25 yards with another well struck, but this time low, shot.
Crucially, however, Rovers were unable to get the second goal their blistering start deserved.
And, having survived the onslaught, the Canaries fought back with a 15-minute spell of pressure every bit as intense as to which they had just been subject to.
Firstly the onrushing Alexander Tettey rattled a 20-yard drive against the post after Grabban had missed Javier Garrido’s cutback before Robinson pushed a 25-yard curler from Kyle Lafferty around the post.
Former Burnley forward Lafferty went closer still when his header from a Nathan Redmond cross deflected off Grant Hanley and dropped agonisingly wide.
But fortune deserted Rovers in the 22nd minute when referee Scott inexplicably adjudged Jason Lowe to have handled Wes Hoolahan’s cross into the box despite the right back having his hand down by his side.
Justice appeared to have been done when Robinson saved Grabban’s penalty.
However the ball broke kindly for the £3m striker and he side-footed home.
Robinson then saved from Redmond from distance as the Canaries, roared on by a passionate home crowd, seemed set to turn the contest on its head.
But, bar a fantastic tackle by immense Rovers captain Hanley on Grabban when he was bearing down on goal, they did not threaten again before the break.
Grabban, at the focal point of Norwich’s fluid front four, created the first chance of the second half in the 58th minute when he produced a sharp turn in the area before poking an effort that would have sneaked it at the near post had Robinson not reacted smartly to palm it away.
Robinson was beaten in the 67th minute, though.
But fortunately half-time substitute Ryan Bennett’s powerful header from Tettey’s wonderfully whipped cross from the right hit the bar and went over.
Norwich rattled the woodwork again six minutes later yet that only tells half the story.
Redmond’s cross from the left was flicked on to Grabban who, from eight yards out, seemed certain to score.
But Robinson produced a truly breathtaking save to push his header on to the bar.
Rovers sent on King for Rhodes and the sub did head an opportunity straight at Ruddy.
But it was the Canaries who were doing all the pressing and eventually they found a breakthrough three minutes from the end of normal time when Johnson placed the ball beautifully over Robinson from 18 yards.
Ruddy then denied Markus Olsson a dramatic equaliser before Grabban rounded off the scoring after Rovers were caught upfield.
Norwich: Ruddy, Whittaker, Martin, Turner, Garrido (R Bennett 46), Tettey, Johnson, Redmond (Josh Murphy 81), Hoolahan, Lafferty (E Bennett 74), Grabban. Subs not used: Rudd, Loza, O’Neil, Surman.
Booked: R Bennett.
Goals: Grabban 23, 90, Johnson 87.
Rovers: Robinson, Lowe, Baptiste, Hanley, Olsson, Cairney, Evans, Williamson (Varney 89), Conway (Marshall 81), Rhodes (King 64), Gestede. Subs not used: Eastwood, Henley, King, Dunn, Taylor.
Booked: Lowe, Evans, Williamson.
Goal: Cairney 1.
Referee: Graham Scott.