In times of trouble, football clubs will often dig deep to find a way out of the rut they have found themselves in.
Norwich’s current rut has become so deeply entrenched that it would be no surprise if Stephen Fry made one of his rare appearances at Carrow Road dressed as General Melchett, urging the boys to go over the top for Queen Delia and country and give the Germans a damn good thrashing. (Maybe that’s what was missing against David Wagner’s Huddersfield?)
As we dig ourselves ever deeper into the mire of our own creation one of the suggestions which cropped up on Twitter the other day was to get in a motivational coach or sports psychologist to help this obviously talented, yet mentally fragile group, make the best of their ability. Nice idea.
Other clubs have used them and achieved moderate short-term success. Norwich have always seemed reticent to get too involved in this area before but it got me thinking of a story a few years back about the players being shown a clip from the American Football film Any Given Sunday as a pre-game gee-up. If anybody hasn’t seen it, do; it’s a great movie for anyone that understands sport and the struggle that goes with it.
The famous scene that defined the movie was where Al Pacino’s embattled head coach had seen his team reach the Super Bowl and in the inspirational speech-to-end-all-speeches he explained that, like life, football is a game of inches. The team that is willing to fight to the death for the inch of ground in front of them will win. Because when you fight for every inch and you add up all the inches at the end of the day, you claw your way out of hell and back up into the light.
Stirring stuff and you can see why it appeals to coaches trying desperately to embed a more passionate mindset.
Take a brief trip down memory lane and you can see examples of where this theory works in practice. A video of the Lambert-era will show a team that wasn’t always the most technically gifted in the world, but were a team of fighters. And it started at the front.
I watched some highlights a while ago and was struck by the number of times a goal in League One or the Championship promotion seasons came from Chris Martin simply doing the ugly things – sticking a foot out to deflect an opposition pass that ultimately still found the intended target but put the recipient on the back foot instead of the front foot, which, in turn, allowed one of the midfielders to nip in and win the ball back and create a chance.
And there was Holty hassling Darren O’Dea or Gareth McAuley into errors in possession that he then took advantage of.
Or the number of times Wes jumped (and still does) for a header against a player much bigger, and although he might not win the ball, he puts the opponent under enough pressure that he spoils the direction he was intending, and gives our lads a chance to win what has now become a 50/50 ball.
Compare to recent times and you can see where the slide begins. I’ll highlight two recently departed players rather than add to unhappiness by battering the current crop any more than they already have been.
Whereas little Wes battles for every header, fights for that inch, Lewis Grabban used to drive me to apoplexy by eschewing every header that he couldn’t win cleanly. If it was in the air and a defender was likely to want to compete, Grabban would stand off, looking like he was trying to read where the free header would drop.
I’ll give you a clue Lewis, it was never anywhere near you.
And the irony is that he was competent in the air and scored headers for us, just as long as he didn’t have a defender challenging him. But I’m not suggesting he was a coward and couldn’t handle the physical challenge but that he backed off because he knew that a 50/50 challenge was messy.
It was unlikely that he would both win the header and direct it exactly where he wanted. “If it’s not going where I want it anyway, I’ll hang around in space and hope it drops to me and then I’ll be effective”. So concerned with how the destination looked he didn’t put in the hard miles to get there.
So too Gary Hooper. One of the most natural finishers I’ve ever seen in a City shirt, and hugely gifted on the ball yet he never made a run that wasn’t to get himself a chance on goal. Hooper had the potential to be an international striker but his abject laziness has seen a career that should have been littered with trophies and international caps dwindle to the subs bench at Hillsborough.
Compare and contrast to a Martin or Holt who make those ugly runs into the channel knowing that 70 per cent of the time the pass won’t be forthcoming, but do it willingly anyway because that’s what you have to do to earn the other 30 per cent.
Huddersfield were a perfect example of how to play this way. Their midfield and forwards harried and pressed us, ultimately creating both goals as a result of forcing our players into errors. Their players aren’t the greatest in the world but they play together, they are prepared to work, and they fight for that ball.
It’s completely understandable that so many fans were pining after Herr Wagner after that game, because his side reminded us of a happier time, of a time we’ve lost and desperately need back.
Do we have the players in our squad to fight for that inch? To claw our way out of hell and back into the light?
That’s the question the manager must answer, and if he can’t answer resoundingly in the affirmative, he’s either got to begin a massive purge in January, or he has to come up with a Baldrick-esque cunning plan to dig us out of our current trench.
And ultimately we know how that turned out.