A New Season - A return to Hopes and Dreams
I haven't blogged for a long while, and I specifically haven't blogged about Norwich City. When I looked back it's been three years since I felt the urge to put finger to keyboard on the subject, an eternity for someone who used to write several articles a month for his fanzine. The main reason for this is that, to be quite frank, it's been too depressing. However with the long-overdue removal of Chris Hughton, and the encouraging pre-season work of Neil Adams there is finally a ray or two of sunshine emerging from the doom-laden dark clouds of the past. Plus, as I've just done the FourFourTwo season preview on Norwich City people may take a few seconds to read what I have to say and I get to ram my opinions through their synapses for a brief while.
To say the last two years were not enjoyable for me as a Norwich City fan is akin to saying Katie Hopkins is a little bit of an attention-seeking contrarian. Following Paul Lambert was always going to be a nigh on impossible task, and whilst Chris Hughton wasn't my choice, I understood the board's reasoning in appointing a guy with Premier League experience, who had managed on a tight budget, and a reputation within the game as an outstanding coach. But from the first game where we were battered 5-0 by Fulham and Hughton was at pains afterwards to point out that we couldn't compete with Fulham's technically superior players, I was struggling to identify with him. Particularly coming from a man who after four transfer windows to correct these technical deficiencies was proudly fielding the combined creative talents of Johnson and Tettey in midfield along with four shackled defenders and a goalkeeper every week.
The contrast between Lambert, the consummate winner, the confidence-builder, the bullish psychologist who wound up Colchester so successfully on his overhyped return, and Hughton's polite, tepid manner as he picked over the minor plus points of another half-hearted away defeat, was night and day. Hughton did have his good points. He is genuinely respected by everyone in the game and I don't think he ever "lost the dressing room" which considering the way we were playing is testament to the respect he obviously engenders. And few people have a major problem with the quality of the players he signed. Bassong, Redmond, Olsson, Turner, Fer. The ability was there for all to see. But the fact that he took what was by common consensus probably our best collection of players in the past twenty years and managed to get them relegated is equally testament to his inability to take a group of talented individuals and form them into an effective team. Lambert took average players and made them a good team. Hughton took good players and made them a bad team. "We lost our identity" was the line from Russell Martin, on relegation.
The style of football, whilst clearly defined by the organised deep-lying defence, and the patient, laboured build-up through the lines was not in keeping with the "Norwich City DNA" that the board has spoken so often about and it left most of the fans cold. A game plan that involves stopping the opposition scoring first and foremost and hoping to sneak a goal here and there is why we only mustered 28 in the entire season. Carrow Road was also the ground that saw least goals scored last season of all 92 clubs (35 compared to 80 at Coventry and 76 at Manchester City). It wasn't entertaining, and when it became clear it wasn't effective either, what was the point?
And so to Neil Adams. His audition at the end of last season was a mixed bag. A good performance with some ballsy tactical changes that almost salvaged something against an in-form Liverpool was undermined by a Hughtonesque no-show against Manchester United and the hype of Giggs' debut as caretaker manager (which by all rights should have been hushed up by a pre-game super-injunction). Adams baffled Jose Mourinho when, at 0-0 with ten minutes left of a must-win game for both sides, the rookie caretaker kept his troops back defending the barracks and settled for a point that ultimately meant the team had no chance of staying up. My theory at the time was that, given we were likely to go down anyway, a 0-0 draw at Chelsea looked better on Adams' managerial CV than a kitchen-sink throwing effort we may well have been caught out in attempting. Perhaps that's a little cynical but his reticence to go for it left me as confused as Jose in the circumstances. And ultimately, he got the job anyway so what do I know? Off-field his handling of some disciplinary issues drew praise from those in the know and cannot have hurt his application for the full-time position either.
When he was given the job permanently, following a drawn-out and ultimately confusing selection process that I won't even begin to pick over here, I was underwhelmed to say the least. He was and is, a massive throw of the dice. He has as much chance of failing as he has succeeding and for a club with a squad full of talented players that should be too good for this division, we should have been stacking those dice a little more in our favour with someone more proven.
However, he has impressed me with some of his decision-making since then. In terms of playing-style he has looked to be more adventurous, in pre-season at least, and play with a tempo that would have left Chris Hughton reaching for oxygen. His signing of Kyle Lafferty addressed the biggest gaping hole in the squad since Holt left, and Grabban and O'Neil are astute captures. For the most part though he looks happy to progress with the players he inherited, and this is perhaps no bad thing. The individual quality remains good and it is difficult to see how Adams could get less from them collectively than Hughton. The players, however removed they may be from the fan in the stands these days, will have felt the effects of last season. They will have felt the same weary depression as we did, watching the opposition monopolise the ball while they remained anchored rigidly to not chasing and losing their defensive shape or face the wrath of Calderwood. They were the ones making the fruitless runs that the deep-lying midfield had neither the range of passing, or the technical ability to find. To have an opportunity to show the skills they possess unencumbered by Hughtonball will free them as players once more. If Adams can handle them correctly, he can finally uncage some tigers against the Wolves on Sunday.
I'm still not all-in on Adams yet though. Russell Martin, whilst a lovely guy and a great pro, is not a clenched-fist, drag-em-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck type that I would have preferred as captain, and I long for the days of a Megson, Mackay or even a Holt to provide that Alpha Male influence, particularly with a new manager who needs his dressing room to be as self-servicing as possible while he grows into the role. Also Martin, for me, has not been so good that he should be guaranteed a starting spot which the captaincy would suggest. This is equally true, if not more so, for vice-captain Bradley Johnson. Whilst the captaincy itself is not a huge issue, the idea that Martin and Johnson are definite starters is a little worrying as both should have more to prove than the manager seems to think. Having said that, Adams was hardly spoilt for choice, with only Ruddy, Olsson, Turner and Howson seemingly firmly anchored as guaranteed names on the team sheet, and none of them are natural, vocal leaders either, despite smatterings of captaincy experience.
Overall, I think the ceiling for next season is that everything works to plan and we are free-scoring, dominant, Champions. There is a chance this could happen. The floor, the absolute worst I can see him doing with this group of players if we are bedevilled by injuries and inconsistency, is mid-table 10th-12th. The reality is probably somewhere in the play-off mix. For me to come to that conclusion, however, represents a hope that I haven't had for a couple of years. A belief that what I see from the team will be better than what has come before, or at least different, unpredictable, and fresh. It may be based on little more than the undeniably cynical premise that it can't be any worse, but Adams has shown just enough to get my supporting juices flowing again.
I'm, tentatively, getting my Norwich back. And yes, I'm aware that it's the hope that kills you...