After quite a few years in the doldrums Norwich City FC has been rejuvenated by the magnificent efforts of Paul Lambert and his team. Backed off the field by the hard-nosed business sense of Chief Executive David McNally, Lambert and his staff have engineered a remarkable turnaround in fortune. The dark days of relegation to the domestic game’s third flight have been banished and replaced by heady success. Successive promotions have seen the team mixing it with the big boys and the supporters have lapped it up. Those old enough to remember the days when Dave Stringer and Mike Walker led Norwich to top four finishes have seen their hopes of similar achievement rejuvenated.
Therein lies the problem. ‘Too much too soon’ can never be a justifiable term as far as success-starved fans are concerned but certainly there is reason to manage expectation. After recently going out of the FA Cup in the sixth round at home to Leicester City, then losing narrowly to Manchester United and Stoke before yesterday’s home draw with Wigan Athletic, Norwich have slipped to twelfth in the Premier League. The fact that this scenario would have been accepted with ‘snatch your hand off’ eagerness had it been offered back in August has been forgotten by many who suddenly seem to think that they know better than the manager and are keen to point out the tactical deficiencies of ‘the diamond’ or the error of selecting a particular centre-back pairing.
The fact is, as the manager must now be tiring of pointing out, Norwich City have come a long, long way in a short time. Many of the clichés about the demands of a long Premier League season have become clichés simply because of their aptness; it is ‘a marathon not a sprint’, it is a long and physically demanding campaign, it is not possible to play well every week and no, ‘there are no easy games’, not even against Wigan at home.
It is time, then, for City fans to manage their expectations. We are competing with the best. We have a team to admire, a ground regularly brimming with supporters and a shrewd executive working hard to put right the financial mistakes of the past. With other clubs going into administration almost weekly we have much for which to be grateful.
It is relevant to remind ourselves, as the manager regularly urges us to do, of just how far we have come in a short period; three years ago this weekend Norwich went down 2-0 at Blackpool and were sitting just one place off the bottom of the Championship table prior to their subsequent relegation. Only Wes Hoolahan survives to this day from the team that played at Bloomfield Road back in March 2009 which included, if you want further evidence of our progress, Jon Otsemobor and Carl Cort, with David Mooney, Alan Gow and the David Carney amongst the substitutes. Oh what a sorry mish-mash of a squad successive managers had somehow cobbled together in that hapless and ultimately doomed campaign!
Football supporters always want more. It is in their nature to dream. And though Lambert is undoubtedly right to urge caution there are, as I have suggested, those amongst the Yellow Army who remember when Norwich City led the Premier League going into the final few games of the 1992-3 season before going on to compete with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. Understandably, then, all are not happy to ‘settle’ for mid-table security at the expense of Cup glory and being pushed aside by the Stoke City wrestling machine, who feel disappointed by a home draw with Wigan.
I have asked before ‘How far is it possible to go?’ Realistically, in the modern football world, can a team without the backing of a mega-rich owner challenge for the very top honours? And while I freely admit that the likelihood of Norwich City (or indeed Fulham, West Bromwich Albion or Swansea) breaking the stranglehold of the so-called big boys seems impossible, dare we not dream? Is football not the game of the underdog? If our talisman Grant Holt can go from bagging goals for Shrewsbury Town (as he did on that very day we lost at Blackpool in 2009) to scoring regularly at the top level, and Russell Martin can be plucked from Peterborough United’s bench to become a Scottish international then why should we not reach for the stars?
Having seen their team all but match Manchester United, draw with Chelsea and Liverpool, and thump Newcastle it is no surprise that supporters are shaking off the shroud of limited ambition. Last week an England side largely devoid of enterprise offered a dull and pedestrian performance against a casual Dutch team who never extended themselves in victory. We saw nothing frighteningly impressive amongst the ranks of England’s so-called elite, nothing Norwich City players cannot match or even exceed. Are Adam Johnson and Stewart Downing really that much better than Anthony Pilkington? Isn’t Kyle Naughton as good as Glen Johnson? Can David Fox not pick a pass just as well as Michael Carrick?
Paul Lambert does not strike me as an unambitious man and I believe that underneath his apparently cautious facade there exists a burning determination and perhaps even a desire to attempt the impossible. Future planning has been a hallmark of his method since his arrival at the club. The recent signings of Jonny Howson and Ryan Bennett, though for different reasons neither was able actually to play for several weeks, speak of patience and forethought and I have no doubt that plans are already in place regarding summer strengthening
It would be foolish, though, to underestimate true football quality. Few would deny that Tottenham and Arsenal were far better than Norwich on their visits to Carrow Road this season, nor that The Canaries were outclassed by Manchester City at The Etihad. Clearly there are those at top clubs whose ability is undeniably superior to that of many Norwich players.
However, success in football is about so much more than just having skilful individuals. Chelsea and Liverpool have spent hundreds of millions of pounds yet fail to deliver. It is the weaving together of the various strands of a club, yes the players’ ability but also the man-management, tactics, signings, coaching, fitness and team spirit which ultimately decide which club prospers and which does not.
So Norwich fans should certainly continue to dream. They should hope for future success above and beyond anything the club has yet achieved. But that hope, those dreams, that expectation, must be managed. Anybody who has played any sport at a reasonable level can affirm that there are myriad factors determining good performance; fitness, psychology, tactics, fatigue, luck…the list goes on.
The fact that Norwich have Paul Lambert in charge to juggle this unpredictable combination means that they have a better chance of going forward successfully than most. However, it will take time and there will be occasional setbacks.
Guest post courtesy of the brilliant Frank Watson, check out his Norwich blog here.