What is the most crucial quality that any contemporary football team needs to have?
That one certain spark, the ingredient that raises them above the mediocre and mundane, the essence that makes them a team to be reckoned with? Serious contenders. No messing around here, no transitional periods or rebuilding. Walking the walk.
Many a critic would say that a good football team needs pace. The ability, the players to switch from defence to attack in an instant, to run at defenders, to see the fear in their eyes, the reluctance to commit to the tackle, the opportunity to bring other players into the equation and charge at opposing lines. Pace can lay the best thought tactical plans to waste, creating multiple chances, all because of that one fleet of foot wizard.
Look no further than Gareth Bale for just how effective having that kind of player to call upon can be. Likewise, consider Bale’s alma mater, Southampton and the latest recruit to come from a south coast school of footballing excellence that I hope we can (the logistics of the Saints Academy is staggering) emulate at Colney.
Luke Shaw caused pandemonium in the normally staid Canary defensive ranks on Saturday, his marauding runs up the Saints left flank had, at times, three yellow shirted defenders trailing in his wake, all reluctant to commit less he embarrass them else take advantage of that seemingly inalienable ‘right’ to go down at the slightest touch. He certainly sent nervous shivers down my spine every time he sprinted towards our rearguard, especially in the first half, so quite what Russell Martin must have been thinking on what was a busy afternoon for him I daren’t think.
So yes, pace in all its glory is, when deployed effectively, is a most potent weapon for any football team with fanciful notions of a prosperous future. Are there any other takers?
How about a physical presence running through the side, strength in numbers, a team who, visually, frighten the opposition into surrender merely because they are a team of giants – big, uncompromising, racked and stacked to a man? The perception is that any team that likes to play football, to pass the ball around and look to ‘play a bit’ can be countered by one that is physically strong and uncompromising, both in appearance and style of play.
Steven Gerrard alluded to this earlier in the season after Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Goodison Park, claiming that, “…there was only one team who came into the derby trying to play football. Everton are effective because they have some big physical lads in the team and are very direct. They are effective. But the only team who tried to play football was us…”
What hope for football you think, if a team that likes to play in the perceived approved manner can be beaten by one that prefers the way of the brute? Yet it works. A famous instance is the 1988 FA Cup Final, one which saw the then footballing aristocrats of Liverpool – a side brim-full of talents, names like Hansen, Hughton, Barnes and Beardsley – verbally intimidated in the tunnel prior to kick off followed by their receiving some crunching Wimbledon tackles almost straight from kick off.
Their confidence and pattern of play disrupted, Liverpool lost 1-0 to a team of what can only be termed ‘journeymen’ footballers. Yet for all that, they were well coached and disciplined and played to their strengths – and had they not, had they attempted to play Liverpool at their own game, to come to play, to pass, to utilize the beautiful game to its purest definition, it is almost certain that they would have been on the receiving end of a footballing humiliation, played not only off the pitch but down most of Wembley way in the bargain by a team that was a hundred times more equipped to play that game than they were.
The critics can knock it but why should a team sacrifice any chance that it has of winning, no matter how small, for the sake of pleasing the neutral?
We’ve seen it in Norwich games over the years. Seen ourselves as a ‘footballing side’, how many times have the Canaries been punched from the skies by a team that came to bully them in order to have any chance of success? Mike Walker’s nearly all-conquering side of the 1992/93 season went into their Premier League fixture at Wimbledon in March 1993 top of the table and flushed with success after their stylish manner of play had seen three consecutive wins without conceding a goal, the most recent, a 3-0 win at Nottingham Forest, as good a display as they had put on during that memorable season. Surely a trip to mid-table Wimbledon, already seen off at Carrow Road that season, would hold no fears?
Wrong. Once again the purists had to hide behind their seats as Wimbledon, as much sweat, sinew and muscle as they had been in defeating Liverpool at Wembley five years earlier bullied, harried and harassed the Canaries into feathery submission; hangdog Canaries midfielder David Smith later admitting, “…they bullied us for the whole game. Vinnie Jones went straight through Colin Woodthorpe direct from kick-off…it was typical Wimbledon…they just said, ‘these aren’t going to play today’. They totally bullied us.”
Fighting your way to victory against superior footballing opposition. It’s happened countless times, continues to occur and will, no doubt, remain part of the game for as long as it is played.
Two examples (of many, admittedly) of qualities that any football team would want to call their own. Both effective, both valued, both sought after. But which is the most crucial to success?
I would say neither and that there is one that is more valuable, more critical and more important than the two of them combined –so much so that its proper application is guaranteed to win games from any losing position, to turn near misses into promotions and the heartbreak of relegation into the joy of survival.
It’s a proven formula and it’s guaranteed. And it’s one that clubs turn to time and time again to prove that matches lost would have been won and trophies and success squandered and wasted would have been won, lofted to the skies and signalled a long period of unabated success.
It never fails – and, for that reason it is, as far as I am concerned, THE most valuable commodity any football club can have. It is also, unfortunately, impossible to apply. It is, of course, the gift of hindsight.
Hindsight is everywhere you look in football. It is worn underneath every shirt, trodden under every blade of grass and written large into the hopes and dreams of both players and spectators, especially the latter, in prolific abundance.
“If only…” – two words that, whenever applied to our national game can prove, once and for all that, no matter who your team are, if they possessed the gift of hindsight, then they’d win every game, trophy and plaudit that is possible to win.
And we’re no different up Norwich way.
If only we’d signed Dean Ashton in the summer of 2004 rather than the following January then we would probably have stayed up that season.
If only Robert Fleck had been fully fit for that FA Cup semi-final in 1992 then we might have beaten Sunderland and got to the final for the first time in our history.
If only Gossy’s speculative shot against Inter Milan in the second half of that UEFA Cup tie had been an inch lower and gone in – we might have gone onto win the tie and then… well, who knows?
If only Martin O’Neill had been able to sign Dean Windass (we’re probably as famous for being one of his ‘nearly’ clubs as any of the clubs he actually played for are) when Martin O’Neill wanted him. O’Neill might then have stayed, and won us not only promotion but some of the glory and success he eventually had at Leicester City (without Windass it should be said).
If only Grant Holt had slotted home that penalty in the last minute against Southampton on Saturday. Three points rather than the one we ended up with would now see us on 35 points and pretty much guaranteed Premier League status for another season, barring a catastrophe of unforeseen circumstances. As it is, well, we’re still looking over our shoulders and…well, what if we did end up relegated this season by a point?
Don’t even think about it!
The gift of hindsight. Knowledge and opinion placed after the event. If it was a gift that could be applied else realised before the event, well, look at how different our clubs history might have been. With Ashton on board, would we have stayed up at the end of the 2004/05 season, consolidated and grown as a club – those years in the wilderness under the likes of Grant and Roeder consequently never happening?
And who’s to say we wouldn’t have beaten Liverpool in the Cup Final back in 1992? Or gone onto win the UEFA Cup two years later? That might have seen Mike Walker stay put, develop his team even further and, well…who knows (again)?
It all seems so easy and obvious now. If only we’d known, had realised. Things would have been a lot easier! And we might be sitting on a handful of trophies and Premier League stability, respectability, permanence even. Damn you Worthington, damn you for not signing Ashton earlier, look at what would have happened had you and the club spent that money only a few months earlier.
A ridiculous statement to make of course. Yet one in which the formula all comes together with the resultant conclusions if hindsight is applied – and be taken as far forward as you like. It seems a faultless logic, one for where every event can be offered an alternative conclusion with success the sole and exclusive beneficiary. With hindsight we could even find ourselves ending this season as Premier League Champions. A very long shot admittedly, up there with Youssef Safri’s effort against Newcastle perhaps, but, as our Moroccan all over the world midfielder proved on that night, if you don’t at least have a go it’ll never happen.
And yet, and yet. Isn’t it good sometimes, reassuring, sensible even, to let hindsight take a back seat and let things develop naturally, to leave hindsight where it should be (ie) in the darkest and most inaccessible recesses of the soul?
Because however bad something might seem at the time, it can – and does – often lead to better times ahead with no need for our ‘better late than never’ interference.
What if Bryan Gunn hadn’t been appointed as Norwich Manager back in 2009 for example? Would hindsight have proved to be valuable then, maybe, just maybe, people would have suggested that his appointment was wrong and that a more seasoned, experienced Manager might have been a better choice to lead us from the mire. Ade Boothroyd maybe, Martin Allen, Micky Adams? It would have made a lot of sense then; it would have made a lot more sense in the aftermath of that 1-7 against Colchester.
Yet things carried on as destiny would have them. There was no magic formula, no application of hindsight and very few people, right now, wishing that he hadn’t been appointed – simply because of where his tenure as Norwich Manager – and the sad conclusion that resulted – led us, that is, to our current position of near Premier League safety.
What if, for example, Norwich had spluttered to a 1-0 win over Colchester in that opening day fixture, having an up and down season as a result, but, and this is critical, ending that season in 8th position, something that might even have been acceptable to the club hierarchy at the time, given they had stressed that the maximum time they would expect the club to be in League One was two seasons. Yet two seasons after that one had ended, we were in the Premier League.
Where would we be now? We might have wished for a Micky Adams or a Martin Allen as an alternative to Gunny at the time, but what if hindsight had won through then and one of them had taken the helm at Carrow Road? All of a sudden and, despite the phrase, hindsight doesn’t seem such a wonderful thing. And maybe we wouldn’t have gone on to stay put in the Premier League had Dean Ashton been signed and paraded on a sunny Summer’s day in 2004 or won a spectacular promotion with Martin O’Neill at the helm and Dean Windass our 30 goal striker either?
It’s an interesting thought and, like so many in football, an entirely subjective one. But, nevertheless, I think that in future I’ll just let things happen and, in hindsight, consign footballing hindsight to history.
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