Time for a few home – and away – truths about the club we love so dearly; we will forever have to fight for our Premier League lives…Mon 4 Feb 13 by Mick Dennis
There are times when my day job, as Football Correspondent of the Daily Express, interferes with life’s important stuff: my family and my football club. But at least it exposes me to the loopy supporters of other teams – and that has helped keep me sane this season.
Liverpool fans were the most recent group to orchestrate a campaign against me. I suggested Luis Suarez might not be quite ready for sainthood, so Scouser forums organised a deluge of messages which accused me of being a racist and/or a Man U supporter.
In my replies I was able to convince them that they’d got the wrong gold and green when it came to my affiliation. But I made very little progress persuading any of them that the verdict in the Patrice Evra affair was spot on.
In the last decade I’ve been targeted by Newcastle followers (upset at my view that their passion for their club is not special), QPR fans (who objected to my describing their club as shoddy and shabby), West Ham supporters (who thought their club was too big for relegation) and Chelsea fans (unable to accept that Jose Mourinho had any flaws).
And so it has gone on. Extreme views, delusions and strident opinions.
So I know that the Yellow Army dissenters are just behaving like fans everywhere. If I didn’t understand that, the utter tosh talked by some this season would have done my swede in by now.
Everybody I spoke with at Loftus Road’s School End thought that the draw at Queen’s Park Rangers was a decent result, a valuable point and stride closer to achieving this season’s objective.
So I was astonished to read yet more criticism of Chris Hughton, the system, Grant Holt and just about everything.
Some of the “everything” included barmy views. The Facebook comment:’I can’t see what Bradley Johnson brings to the team,’ falls into that category.
But let’s dissect some of the other criticisms, starting with complaints about using only one striker.
It is not inherently a defensive system. The favoured formation for many Premier League teams is 4-2-3-1, and nobody suggests it is a negative deployment when used by Manchester City, for instance.
Tottenham often line up like we do, with Clint Dempsey operating behind a solitary Jermain Defoe. It is carrying them towards the Champions League.
Barcelona frequently operate without any out-and-out striker. Lionel Messi is a ‘false nine’, a centre-forward who drops deep. But they’re not too bad at attacking.
And if you want further proof that you don’t require two strikers to be effective offensively, remember that Liverpool played with one man ‘up top’ at Carrow Road in September. I won’t remind you what happened.
City’s system evolved because Hughton decided to play Wes Hoolahan centrally, behind a striker, in the role which Spurs give to Dempsey. So the question to those who desire two strikers – and to those who urged the earlier introduction of Luciano Becchio from the bench at Loftus Road – is a tricky one.
Who makes way for the extra striker?
Wes? Or one of the wide players? Either of those choices would actually make us less positive.
If Wes goes, we lose a lot of creativity in and around the opposition box. If it is one of the widemen, we become unbalanced and strip out a lot of the service to the strikers.
One of the holding pair (Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey) could make way for a striker, but with Wes in his normal role we’d be very vulnerable through the middle.
Paul Lambert’s solution was to play a diamond more often than not, but that was a very narrow system. Some teams noted that weakness and made a point of attacking us down the unprotected flanks last season. I think more sides would have been ready for our diamond this campaign and I am not at all convinced it would have sparkled.
We could drop Holty to play someone else in the lone striker role, but we shouldn’t do that without thinking about the work our captain has done this season. It hasn’t been producing his normal hat-full of goals, and so some have not spotted what he has been contributing, but consider how results have improved since he returned to the side.
I outlined my view about what Holt does in the piece on this site about the first-half at Swansea.
And that first-half at Swansea, which, I repeat, was as good a 45 minutes as I can recall seeing from a City team of any era, demonstrated that the 4-4-1-1 system can be an attacking set-up. It also showed that Hughton himself is not a negative manager.
Hughton’s teams attack when they can. His Newcastle team won 30 games in the Championship and took the title in record time. His Birmingham side scored 41 goals away from home in the Championship, more than any other side in any of the top four divisions.
In some games – like the match at Loftus Road – the opposition make the running and the 4-4-1-1 does enable Norwich to defend resolutely. But that’s a good thing, surely.
Most pundits expected QPR to beat us, because of the improvement wrought recently by Arry, and because his new signings would lift the mood and the performance. Hughton’s City proved the pundits wrong. Again.
As for the idea among some Norwich fans that our men ‘should’ have been able to beat QPR because they are bottom. Well, with a little more sharpness from Wes, they would have.
But not losing was entirely worthwhile. It meant that, when the weekend’s games had all been played, none of the bottom three had gained ground on City and all of us were one game closer to the finishing line.
And here is a truth which some will find unpalatable: as long as we live, Norwich will always have to scrap for every Premier League point. And any point earned away from home will be a good one.
Anyone who compares out finances to most other Premier League clubs, or dares to point out that three years ago we were edging to a win against Hartlepool is accused of allowing a ‘Little Ol’ Norwich’ ethos to blunt ambition.
I reject that accusation. I assert that acknowledging how quickly we have climbed and understanding how perilous our grip remains are both essential. Without that proper perspective, you cannot have a sane evaluation of performances or a sensible discussion about attainments.
Did I hurt when Luton won at Carrow Road? You bet. But I wouldn’t swap a place in the FA Cup fifth round for the points taken from the home game against Spurs and the trip to QPR.
Would I like us to win every game by playing flowing football? Daft question. Of course I would. But it is a daft idea as well. Burnley tried it. So did Blackpool.
Am I ambitious for Norwich? Certainly.
My ambition is for the great club in the Fine City to stay up this season, pay off their debts (as they must on 31 May), improve in the summer and maintain the progress. The model must be West Brom or Stoke (in the way they have built, rather than the way they play). Then the day might dawn when we can say we should strive to emulate Everton.
I am encouraged by the fact that all of Hughton’s buys have been successes. I am cheered by the fact that he is patently a decent man. I am over-joyed by what folk tell me about his coaching prowess and his tactical nous.
And I make no apologies at all for looking back as well as forwards. Three years ago this week we followed that narrow win over Hartlepool by losing at Millwall in League One. Two years ago this week we lost at Burnley in the Championship. One year ago this week we had just suffered a 3-0 drubbing at Sunderland in the Premier League.
Sometimes, Norwich fail to win. That’s football. That’s life.
Get used to it and get over it. Don’t let it blacken your mood so much that you lash out at the thing you love. Don’t let it obscure your view of the progress that has been made and the prize which is within sight this season.
I drove home from Loftus Road singing. The ditty about them being loaded and us staying up.