Wish me luck.
I’m about to address 300 members of the excellent U3A (University of the Third Age) that I chair in Watford. Nice as they are, I suspect they’ll remind me of what I told them last month:
Firstly that Norwich were going to pip Watford for automatic promotion, and, secondly, there’d be a hung parliament.
Perhaps I should adopt fellow columnist Russell Saunders’ bullish attitude to Watford, but I’m afraid discretion may be the better part of valour. I’m told some may turn up in “We are Premier League” t-shirts, and I’ll smile sweetly.
Humble pie will on the menu, especially as I’m not only a City supporter but also a psephologist.
No, that doesn’t restrict what I eat. It means I’m a student of elections and electoral behaviour. More plainly, I’m a pollster (mostly retired thank goodness).
A question: If I ask you to think of weather forecasters and their record, what comes to mind? Michael Fish and the hurricane, perhaps? That was October 1987 – just one blip in 50 years of reliable advice to help us plan our lives. But it’s what we remember.
It’s like that for pollsters. My former colleagues at Ipsos MORI are an outstanding bunch of professionals, with a highly impressive record in the elections of 1979, 1983, 1987, 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010. But for the remaining 16 years of my career after 1992, clients and friends only ever asked me about the polls’ failure in that year.
My colleagues are in for a long time of questions about 2015.
Anyway, back to business. With the Portman Road leg now behind us, what have we learnt?
First, that Ipswich are a tougher nut to crack than some might have supposed. Finishing in the top six and winning the games they did, it’s clear they have some resilience and nous – the ease of our victories against them during the season had to be deceptive.
They tightened up in midfield and hoisted the ball forward quickly, both of which made life less comfortable for us.
For all our nice possession, we created few chances and the challenge is to open them up at Carrow Road. One way or another, our Wes will surely have a larger role to play on Saturday.
Equally, some key things about our team were underlined. If there’s a theme in my mind about Norwich today, it’s the importance of the unspectacular.
Alex Tettey didn’t catch the eye as, for instance, Jonny Howson did. But boy, was he important to us breaking up Ipswich possession and getting our own started. My Man of the Match award was between the two of them.
More controversially, perhaps, I want to stand up for Russell Martin. Yes, his clearances aren’t always as decisive as we’d like, and he’ll be disappointed at his part in the equaliser.
Those things are obvious and clear to everyone but what many fans don’t sufficiently recognise, in my view, is the positional and tactical sense with which he prevents many opposition chances being created.
To those who still can’t believe he’s in the team as a centre-back, I offer this thought. Alex Neil, a manager at the dispassionate and decisive end of the spectrum, keeps picking him. Even with Ryan Bennett fit, a strong defender who clears his lines emphatically, Alex sticks with Russ in the centre.
What does the evidence say? Obviously, our defence hasn’t matched the excellence of Middlesbrough’s. Except that it has.
In the last 22 league games (i.e. Alex Neil’s time at Carrow Road), Boro conceded 20 goals – the best in the league, except for City’s 19.
Despite their resilience, I’m still confident we’ll get past Ipswich and be at Wembley on the 25th. We have an advantage in quality, but that alone won’t be enough.
A Norwich-Ipswich semi-final inevitably brings back memories of Steve Bruce. We loved him for the same reason we love Bradley Johnson – he’s a winner.
And so is Alex Neil.
Much as I generally care about people’s lives and values, I give him a special exemption. I don’t care what nationality he is, or his politics. I don’t care about his taste in music. I’m not bothered if he loves animals or remembers his Mum’s birthday (though I’m pretty sure he does). I care about one thing, and it’ll sustain me through this week.
He’s our manager and he’s a winner.