With a tweak or three this squad is good enough to challenge but the doubts still niggleFri 6 Jan 17 by Stewart Lewis
By the end of the season, you may not recognise me.
A slim-line, super-fit Stewart, his mind full of newly-acquired wisdom and his reflexes honed by hours at the piano.
Or maybe not. Sadly, history tells us it’s about as likely as Arsenal winning the Champions League or Mourinho praising the officials’ handling of his games.
If you’ve made New Year Resolutions, I hope you’re more resolute with them than I am.
Let’s set those Resolutions aside, then, and focus on some fundamental New Year Wishes for ourselves and our club.
Before getting into football matters, I wish every one of you (yes, including you, Jeff) a healthy and happy 2017. The latter may depend a little – hopefully not too much – on the fortunes of Norwich City.
My basic wish for our club, of course, is to shake off the fragility and torpor of many performances since October, to play to our potential and mount a charge into the playoffs. Actually, it won’t take that much of a ‘charge’: remarkably in view of how we perceive this season, we’re only five points off sixth place.
The $64,000 question – actually, much more than that – is what it will take.
Our scepticism about Alex Neil won’t go away with one good performance, of course; nor should it. But the Derby game offered us some insight – including one feature that seems to me to have been under-reported and under-analysed.
A fellow columnist earlier this week said about the game “For 90 minutes we were served up a New Year’s treat”. With due respect, I disagree.
We were served up a New Year’s treat for 75 minutes. For the first 15 minutes the team was sluggish, with little movement and few players looking for the ball or ready to take responsibility. No wonder the crowd was subdued.
Then Nelson Oliveira conjured one of his goals from nothing. From that point, everything changed. Players like Naismith came to life, everyone wanted the ball and felt empowered to dominate their opponent. Derby – who hadn’t lost a league game since October – barely deserved to be called second best.
So, what might the transformation tell us?
Two diseases in football show very similar symptoms – so similar that it’s easy to get the diagnosis wrong. One is lack of commitment (also known as “not playing for the manager”, “lost the dressing room” etc). The other is lack of confidence.
After the performances between October and December, we’ll take some convincing that there isn’t an element of the first disease at work. Changes of personnel, but a common lack of spirit and belief.
However, it may not be the complete picture. The Derby game showed us that with an injection of confidence – in this case from Oliveira’s strike – we can play impressive and successful stuff.
If we could put a run of wins together – a big ‘if’, of course – we might see a sustainable version of those glorious 75 minutes on Monday.
Next up in the league is a tantalising visit to strugglers Rotherham, followed by the always-competitive home game against Wolves – with added spice this time in the form of Paul Lambert’s return. Let’s see where we are after those two.
Much has been made of the team selections against Brentford and Derby, which generally met with fans’ approval as something close to our ideal choice.
The interesting thing is that they’re clearly close to Alex Neil’s ideal too. The team against Derby was the nearest we’ve seen for a long time to the opening-day selection against Blackburn. The only two differences were the inclusion at Blackburn of Ryan Bennett (with Russ injured) and Cameron Jerome (before the emergence of Oliveira).
It’s the team AN wanted to lead us through the season, but which he changed when injury and form (and who knows what else) got in the way.
None of this is to take the heat off AN or the Board. The Board is desperate for him to succeed, for a mix of good and apparently not-so-good reasons. If the team can’t sustain its improved form (and God knows, we had false dawns in 2016), then the pressure will be relentless and justified.
On the other hand, it’s just possible that Derby will prove a turning point. With a few tweaks in January, our squad is good enough to mount a challenge.
If that happens under Alex Neil’s leadership, a number of us will have to look back and take responsibility for our words.
As someone who came off the fence relatively late but called, with all the fervour of the convert, for AN’s sacking, I’d look particularly foolish.
Vain as I am, in that situation I’d be purely, deliriously, happy.