Norwich City's players may have already been resigned to the worst but watching Wednesday evening's events unfold at the Stadium of Light cannot have been easy. As Sunderland celebrated their miraculous escape, Norwich were coming to terms with relegation, which will be confirmed on Sunday. Their three-year stay in the Premier League is at an end, cut down brutally after a season that began with genuine optimism.

A penny for the thoughts of David McNally, the chief executive who claimed in January that he would "prefer death to relegation". At that time Norwich were out of the bottom three and comfortably clear of Sunderland, even if supporters had already begun to question Chris Hughton's tactics and position as manager.

A month later and McNally said "it would be almost delinquent of the football club to not be aware of potential candidates" to succeed Hughton, who was eventually sacked with five matches of the campaign remaining. His replacement, Neil Adams, was handed the daunting task of steering the side – in terrible form – clear of trouble with only one match left to play against a side outside the top seven.

Sunderland, though, showed far more resilience against their higher-placed opponents, earning a dramatic point at Manchester City before ending Chelsea's 77-game unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge under José Mourinho and winning at Manchester United.

Gus Poyet also provided Sunderland with a day out at Wembley, a defeat in the Capital One Cup final that will live long in the memory for the hordes who descended on Covent Garden for a Wearside party. The scenes in the capital were described as a "disgusting cesspit" by one Conservative MP but Poyet dragged Sunderland out of the sewage and up to the stars by the scruff of their necks. Norwich, meanwhile, have sunk into the mire like a stone after finishing 11th last year.

City's players had the day off on Thursday and some will be considering where their futures lie after a campaign in which the football has been timid and the decline depressing. A number of their squad will not want to hang around for a season in the Championship, with more upheaval surely around the corner as the club attempts to adjust its spending accordingly for life back in the second tier.

It is clear to see why McNally was so desperate for Norwich to remain in the Premier League, even if some of his comments were certainly misguided. The new £5.5bn television deal ensures that mere participation in the Premier League brings in unprecedented income and will do for the foreseeable future. This season, whoever finishes bottom of the table on Sunday is set to earn more in TV money than Manchester United's £60.8m for winning the league last year.

Norwich, though, will no longer be eligible for a slice of that pie. Their last game of the season is against Arsenal at Carrow Road and, barring a win and a goal difference swing of 17 between City and West Bromwich Albion, they will officially be relegated this weekend.

It has been a tale of misery and mishaps, victories against Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur papering over cracks that had been threatening to split wide open for some time. The decision to sack Hughton was, in hindsight, ill-fated, although the likelihood was that Norwich would have been relegated anyway given their performances. They gambled that the presence of Adams would generate a feelgood factor enough to secure three points in their next game at Fulham and, in fairness, it almost worked.

Adams, who led Norwich to Youth Cup success last season, dropped the captain, Sébastien Bassong, and made six changes to the team only to be undone by a Hugo Rodallega strike. Minutes earlier Robert Snodgrass had hit the crossbar.

Much has been said about Hughton's dismissal but, if anything, it was the timing of the decision that was most perplexing. Norwich supporters had been frustrated by his perceived negativity for some time and arguably the board should have acted sooner to dispense with him, if they were going to do so at all. Even if they had won at Fulham they would still have been in the bottom three.

The current mood could not have been foreseen on the opening day of the season, an entertaining 2-2 home draw against Everton that followed a summer of considerable spending. In came Ricky van Wolfswinkel for £8.5m from Sporting Lisbon but, after an excellent debut in which he scored a fine header, the Dutchman has failed to find the net in 24 league appearances.

Some Norwich supporters howled like wolves in the stands during that match but the striker has not looked like blowing a single defence down since. Goals have been the major problem and Norwich have scored more than one in a league game on only five occasions. Gary Hooper has scored six in 31 games and Johan Elmander has netted just once.

Snodgrass, Leroy Fer, Martin Olsson, John Ruddy and Nathan Redmond may all attract interest this summer and such has been the disillusionment within the support of late that fans have attempted to boycott the end-of-season awards and vote for the reserve goalkeeper Carlo Nash – who has yet to play a single game for the club – to win player of the year.

Although QPR or Wigan may repeat the feat via the play-offs, in the past four years only one club have so far bounced straight back to the top tier after relegation, West Ham in 2012. For Norwich, the road to redemption could be a long one.