If only being a Norwich City fan was more simple.
Following Tuesday night’s events at Craven Cottage from nearly 300 miles north in my student accommodation in Durham, at half past eight I was in a triumphant mood.
The increasingly reliable Graham Dorrans had just unerringly slotted his second penalty of the match, rewarding City’s first half efforts with a comfortable two goal lead.
If only it could have stayed that way. If only I supported a team who were capable of defending leads.
Despite Fulham’s deficit, I still felt on edge. We all did, surely. I was present 20 days earlier at St. James’ Park, watching on as City disintegrated under the intensive pressure Newcastle were applying on Michael McGovern’s goal. The chaos of the final two minutes felt surreal. We couldn’t defend our lead.
It almost happened again at Molineux. Sitting pretty at 2-0 following Robbie Brady’s aesthetically-pleasing curler, a moment of Ivo Pinto lethargy allowed Wolves back into the game.
The final twenty minutes were painful to watch. City held on that day, but only after surviving an agonising six minutes of relentless bombardment. We sat too deep. We got lucky.
Rotherham at home continued the trend. A combination of Wes Hoolahan innovation and the uncharacteristic clinical finishing of Cameron Jerome had handed us another two-goal lead. Again, however, defensive ineptitude let the side at the bottom of the league back into the game.
It took a late goal from the much-maligned Steven Naismith to secure the victory.
And so Craven Cottage arrived. The pattern of defensive vulnerability and conspicuous lack of second half stability continued to manifest itself, as former City striker Chris Martin condemned us to a disappointing point in the capital.
The laudable away fans departing that game would have inevitably left with a sense of profound disillusionment.
They had every right to. City may be scoring goals – a considerable 26 so far in the league – but we are conceding far too many as well. It’s not just the mere statistic of conceding 18 that is so telling: it’s the timing of those goals.
Too frequently, we enable poorer sides to obtain a foothold in games they have no right to achieve anything from. The past few weeks have not been good enough.
There is no solitary problem that City need to solve. Instead, the issue is multi-faceted, with Alex Neil’s often perplexing team selection as well as his in-game tactics culminating in us allowing sides to get back into games.
The players must receive some form of criticism, too: the same eleven who looked so comfortable throughout the first half on Tuesday night subsequently crumbled after half-time, letting what could be two critical points slip.
There’s no single cause of us being fundamentally incapable of defending leads.
Things have to change. Alex Neil must finally come to terms with the fact that Ryan Bennett is a superior centre-back to Russell Martin, who has improved over recent weeks but still too often demonstrates visible signs of defensive fragility.
We must stop retreating so deep when we hold a lead over teams, consequently inviting pressure and leading to the inevitable. We must learn from our plethora of recent mistakes.
City still do possess the second strongest squad in the league behind the now ominous-looking Newcastle United. Our attacking options are considerable, with Alex Pritchard being unfortunate to miss out on Tuesday at the hands of the under-par Robbie Brady.
Cameron Jerome has been superb all season, working tenaciously in his solo role up front and providing the side with a focal point, as well as scoring goals.
Jacob Murphy has been terrific, playing with fearlessness and boldness when deployed on the flanks. However, such significant time on the pitch in recent weeks will have surely taken its toll on his body, and the prospect of the fresher Josh running at Championship defenders is surely an attractive one for Norwich City fans. The latter should start against Preston on Saturday.
Jonny Howson has been missed in the most recent two games, a player who provides such creativity and solidity to our midfield, retaining the ball excellently and distributing it with positivity.
Graham Dorrans has been good in recent weeks, but his partnership with Alex Tettey in front of the back four remains an unstimulating and slightly undynamic one.
Defence is where the problems lie. Ryan Bennett has been grossly under-used by Neil this season, remaining on the bench when the inconsistent Martin continues to be selected.
And although not starring against Burton Albion three weeks ago, the brilliant Timm Klose remains our best defender, whilst Martin Olsson has had a terrific season at left-back.
Ivo Pinto provides City with an extra dimension and additional enterprise going forward, but his defending remains questionable at times, as evidenced at Molineux and then at Craven Cottage. Pinto was culpable for Fulham’s equaliser, marauding up the pitch and leaving Norwich’s right flank exposed.
It’s by all means not all negative for City. We remain second and are scoring goals freely. But, Alex Neil must re-evaluate his team selection – Bennett must start – and learn to tighten up his defence. It nearly cost us at Wolves and against Rotherham, whilst in the Newcastle and Fulham games we were less fortunate.
I – like most City fans I’m sure – remain confident about our prospects. However, episodes such as that of Tuesday night must be eradicated rapidly if we are to sustain any form of successful promotion charge.
We must be resolute, maintaining solidity for the whole 90 minutes and not allowing inferior teams routes back into matches. We are capable. It’s probably only a matter of time.
If only being a Norwich fan was more simple.