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 By Paddy Davitt

Norwich City and Alex Neil's agony at Premier League relegation

With the season over, it's time to assess Norwich's 2015-16. Here's a look back on a hugely disappointing season.

Season in a sentence

So much early promise following promotion to the Premier League was replaced by a painful crash landing back in the Championship.

Highlight

Manchester United might be a long way short of the dominating force from Sir Alex Ferguson's Premier League vintage but Norwich City's 2-1 away win at Old Trafford in December was still a major milestone. City had not won at Manchester United since 1989, to underline the scale of the achievement for the promoted Canaries.

They cashed in on uncertainty swirling around Louis van Gaal's position at the time to exploit a growing sense of disenchantment with a composed counterattacking display. Nathan Redmond had one of his better days in a Norwich shirt as the link to Cameron Jerome, who scored a rare Premier League goal before turning provider for Alex Tettey to poke the ball past David De Gea.

The scale of Norwich's celebrations spoke volumes at the final whistle and Alex Neil felt compelled to dedicate the landmark win to former chief executive David McNally and owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones, for showing faith in him after being plucked from relative obscurity at Hamilton.

Low point

Relegation and all that entails was the ultimate low blow for Norwich but you can pinpoint the damaging 3-0 home defeat to relegation rivals Sunderland in late-April as the moment when both clubs were sent spinning in different directions. Norwich had to beat the Black Cats at Carrow Road to move seven points clear, after previously inflicting a painful stoppage time 3-2 defeat on another relegation-threatened side, Newcastle United.

Norwich went into the contest on the back of claiming seven points from nine available but Sunderland were simply too streetwise, too battle-hardened and in Jermain Defoe, they had a predatory striker enjoying a late flourish to his career.

Norwich failed to handle the occasion and contributed massively to the sour outcome when on-loan Liverpool defender Andre Wisdom conceded a needless penalty and then Seb Bassong turned over possession to gift Defoe a simple tap-in at the far post. Duncan Watmore's stoppage time third was purely academic but reaffirmed the Black Cats were set to go from strength-to-strength while Norwich never really recovered from fluffing their lines.

Norwich woe v Sunderland
Norwich will be back in the Championship after failing to survive on their return to the Premier League.

Star man

It would be difficult to argue Norwich had no real standout performer in a season which finished with a swift return to the Championship. Robbie Brady certainly looked a snip at a reported £7 million in the opening months of the campaign following his summer arrival from Hull City. The Republic of Ireland international's quality from set pieces and his versatility operating in numerous positions down the left-hand side marked him out as an early frontrunner for Norwich's star man but much like City's downturn, Brady's form dipped alarmingly with a prolonged spell at full-back, and the ex-Manchester United trainee never hit the same heights.

Dieumerci Mbokani finished as Norwich's seven-goal top scorer and is worthy of a mention in patches but Jonny Howson's consistency earned him the player of the year award from the Norwich fans and it was hard to argue. The midfielder's ability to operate in a number of roles, like Brady, was seen as an asset in the early part of the season but when he was restored to his more natural central role, Howson's technical ability and drive proved valuable commodities until a late season-ending knee injury.

What's next?

Norwich face a major rebuilding task this summer to equip Neil's squad for the challenge of trying to bounce back at the first attempt, following relegation from the Premier League. The Canaries' successfully managed that in glorious fashion at Wembley under Neil 12 months ago when they triumphed at Middlesbrough's expense in the Championship play-off final, but this looks a bigger task.

Neil himself has already alluded to an ageing squad woven around a core of players who have now suffered two relegations in three seasons. Inevitably, there will be a number of his troops who may well attract Premier League suitors, with the likes of Nathan Redmond and Robbie Brady among the talent sure to interest the top flight.

Norwich's first task this summer is to find a replacement for recently departed chief executive McNally, who was a key figure in the buying and trading of players over the previous seven years in a spell where Norwich enjoyed four seasons in the Premier League.

Neil has already made it abundantly clear Norwich's promotion hopes could hinge on a swift appointment, and then a proactive approach to re-shaping a squad which will be among the favourites to gain promotion next season.

Paddy is the chief Norwich City correspondent for media group Archant. He has covered the Canaries for more than 10 years. Twitter: @paddyjdavitt.

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