Football can hurt. Conceding late goals can hurt. Watching your team lose after a colossal – to quote the great Paul Lambert – six-hour trek north can hurt.
But few of the 876 travelling fans would have left a Norwich City game feeling as dejected, deflated and devastated as they did at St. James’ Park on Wednesday evening.
On Thursday morning I woke up tired.
Tired from a considerable lack of sleep on Wednesday night, struggling to comprehend the absurdity of those final two minutes and the heart-breaking image of Dwight Gayle’s low shot being too strong for City’s Michael McGovern.
Tired of Norwich City’s continual failure to defend effectively and conduct basic tasks.
Tired of Alex Neil’s tactical ineptitude that produced the bizarre omission of Ryan Bennett from the starting eleven and his subsequently fatal substitutions.
Wednesday night’s stoppage time carnage felt slightly surreal. City had defended well, thwarting the relentless threat of Dwight Gayle and then Alexander Mitrovic with the score at 3-2.
The game was being seen out. Nearly 900 honourable Canaries up in the gods at St. James Park were singing about progressing up the league and regaining our position at the top of the Championship.
Then the mayhem occurred.
City were undone by two unforgivable moments of defensive ineptitude by the hapless Sebastian Bassong, whose failure to mark Yoan Gouffran for the equaliser was as conspicuous as a certain Donald Trump’s voluminous quiff in a crowded room.
Bassong and the odious Trump do have one thing in common: we all possess a common desire that neither of them are ever selected as number one in their various disciplines in the future.
Bassong’s failure to concentrate on basic defensive duties and instead his insistence on ball-watching has cost City on so many occasions. We all remember that horrid Saturday lunchtime against Sunderland, where he may have been fouled in losing possession but failed to distribute the ball with anywhere near enough rapidity in the build-up.
He has to now be City’s fourth choice centre-back, behind the generally consistent Klose, the under-appreciated Ryan Bennett and the improving – in recent weeks – Russell Martin.
Norwich missed their big Swiss defender on Tyneside. Yes, he was uncharacteristically poor against Burton Albion at the weekend, losing aerial battles and often committing to challenges he was unable to win.
However, his impact on City has been profound, providing enhanced solidity to our all too brittle back four as well as facilitating unity and comedy off the pitch through his intelligent employment of social media and interviews. He really is an asset for Norwich.
Wednesday night’s damaging affair in the north started just as badly as it had ended. Newcastle were dominant in the first half, being profligate with opportunities and seeing Michael McGovern make a series of terrific close range saves. We deserved to go behind through the menacing Gayle.
As at Forest the week before, however, we rallied. We showed fight. Graham Dorrans proved that somebody in a yellow shirt was capable of converting a penalty kick in a convincing manner, sending the away fans into delirium despite our significant distance from the pitch.
Our original structure of deploying Howson in a more advanced central role with a holding two of Tettey and Dorrans was proving relatively effective, with our wingers – particularly the superb Jacob Murphy – providing perpetual danger on the flanks.
Robbie Brady again failed to find his form that he had demonstrated so strikingly in France during this summer’s European Championships for the Republic of Ireland, but City looked menacing.
Cameron Jerome deserved his goal, toiling tenaciously all night and holding the ball up with substantial strength and determination. His finish past Karl Darlow was unerring, and a true reward for all his hard work so far this season.
Whilst Murphy’s goal possessed a somewhat greater element of fortune owing to the decisive deflection his long range shot took, City deserved their second half lead. Our build up play was slow at times owing to Dorrans’ and Tettey’s slightly delayed distribution, but we looked comfortable.
Cue the meltdown. Bassong’s visible and alarming inability to defend an innocuous long ball over the top let Gayle score his second. Relentless Toon pressure ensued. Bennett was brought on – the fact he didn’t start was perplexing – to sturdy our defence, but Neil’s conservative strategy simply invited more home pressure.
We all know what happened next.
Neil must learn from City’s north-eastern disaster. The fact he played Bassong at the back in our toughest game of the season so far surely baffled every Norwich fan. Bennett had to start.
Hoolahan’s axing was also bizarre, although Howson – whilst being less creative – proved a dependable understudy in his role behind the tireless Cameron Jerome. He must also persist with McGovern in goal over the inconsistent John Ruddy, despite McGovern’s failure to keep out Gayle’s late, crushing shot.
The season goes on. If Neil finally comes to the conclusion that Bennett is our second best defender behind Klose as well as realising that sitting back with a lead only inevitably leads to disaster, we can still be successful.
If Bassong is not selected at Molineux at the weekend, City have every chance of going there and collecting three valuable points. If Cameron Jerome and Jacob Murphy continue to perform with the brilliance they have so far, we can all be optimistic about our chances for the rest of the season.
Let’s still believe.
In the week where Sam Allardyce’s naivety cost him his dream job, Norwich City committed multiple errors of their own on Tyneside. Allardyce paid the permanent price for his mistakes.
Today in the Midlands, City have the opportunity to recover. Lessons will have been learned from midweek, in a game we did not deserve to lose but one where individual shortcomings cost us dear.
We go again. Let’s still believe.