It’s the hope that kills you. It always is with Norwich City.
The spirit, buoyance and optimism that had swept Carrow Road four days earlier on the night the Toon came to town was substituted by sourness, anger and fundamental disillusionment at the Pirelli on Saturday, as the loyal 1700 crammed into that anachronistic terrace visibly and vocally delineated their aversion. Corner turned? Rubbish.
This was a display of gross fecklessness from our team, a performance where mental fragility, a lack of resilience and an ultimate absence of fight reigned supreme. After Michael Kightly’s sublime second-half chip, the Wembley heroes of 2015 would have fought back. This bunch of mediocrity? Not a chance.
This City side lacks so much. It lacks leaders, players who are willing to stand up and take responsibility in times of crisis.
It lacks scrappers, figures of tenacity and defiance who apply themselves on these physical and frequently unpalatable Championship away days.
It lacks creativity going forward and an ability to penetrate a well-drilled and compact defence.
It lacks defensive aptitude, the solidity that is so important for any team to even consider the prospect of promotion. It lacks fight and hunger.
In a game of such significance in fostering a sense of momentum and convincing fans that this side really had – to use a recent cliché – ‘turned a corner’, City barely even turned up in Staffordshire.
The Murphy twins resembled fragile scarecrows on a Norfolk farm on a day where it was Massey Fergusons that were really required.
The defence continually dithered, a frailty epitomised by the incompetence of Timm Klose as he allowed Lasse Vigen Christensen to pinch the ball and cross to the unmarked Cauley Woodrow. Alex Tettey’s distribution was too slow. And Yanic Wildschut lacked efficacy after a promising first twenty minutes.
These criticisms are nothing new. This is a squad that is essentially rotten and requires youthful overhaul, one where it is injected with hungry, driven players who have a point to prove. The drive, determination and grit from those who remain after that special day in the capital has seemingly disappeared. Radical change is needed.
This wasn’t even City’s nadir on the road. Performances at Birmingham, Barnsley, Reading and Rotherham were characterised by even greater ineptitude, while Derby and QPR were equally unpleasant trips for the devoted following faithful. Saturday’s unedifying scenes were merely the latest in an increasingly lengthening line of failures.
The absence of scrappers – combative players who really care – was so conspicuous as we watched from that tiny terrace. While not the most gifted player, City’s success of 2014/15 owed a lot to the tenacity of Bradley Johnson and his ability to apply himself in difficult – and often unpleasant – scenarios.
City also missed the leadership and aggression of Steven Naismith at the Pirelli, a player whose influence on the pitch is often underrated.
By contrast, an attacking trio consisting of featherweights Jacob Murphy and Alex Pritchard was far from a desirable sight, while even the more physically robust Yanic Wildschut manifested his frequent inability to take an effective first touch.
City’s attacks lacked both pace and penetration so severely, shifting the ball too slowing and laterally. Only the talismanic Jonny Howson possesses the requisite dynamism and enterprise as a holding midfielder to really threaten defences.
The season appears to have gone. The ostensibly improved run we had recently constructed showed no real signs of progress, with victories only coming at a subdued Carrow Road against relatively low-lying Wolves, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest and the solitary away win in Wales at the hands of the equally incompetent Cardiff.
The facts remain: we have taken three points off teams in the top ten.
The optimists must address the empirical evidence that exists. City have not beaten a team in the top ten. We have won three out of our sixteen away games. The ascending Huddersfield, Reading, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday continue to progress and should waltz into the top six. Only Fulham have a genuinely viable chance of catching them.
If you’re wondering, this is really not nice to write.
The facts cannot be ignored. Speaking objectively, we must now gain some perspective, accept the futility of believing and begin to rebuild. The youth and hunger of James Maddison and Carlton Morris must be nurtured and developed. The apathy, passivity and increasing inefficacy of our defence, Alex Tettey, Graham Dorrans and Kyle Lafferty must be ushered out.
A new era dawns.
But I won’t stop believing. I can’t. Supporting Norwich City is a perpetual love affair, an experience of such turbulence that it becomes fundamentally impossible to relinquish all hope. I’ll be buying a ticket to Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow morning. I will travel to the Huddersfields, the Prestons, the Villas. I won’t give up.
After what we collectively witnessed last weekend, it is difficult. Rationally and objectively, it looks set to be over. But – for me – those notions of hope and expectation will never die. There’ll always be a chance we can do something special. The visit of Ipswich – a very difficult game given the context – does have the potential to re-energise, rejuvenate and remotivate this visibly drained and dejected group of players. We have to try and believe.
I know it’s hard. It really is. I’ve been as disillusioned as any of us at points this season as defeats on the road cumulate and intensify into a distasteful mess. But, regardless of this squad’s such significant shortcomings, I will always have hope.
Yes, it may be minimal. But it’s there. It’s what supporting a team’s all about – those indelible expectations that make us follow them up and down the country.
The situation remains bleak. This is far from a suggestion that I think we’ll do it, instead merely an acknowledgment of how it’s impossible to be comprehensively pessimistic. No matter how bad it gets for City, I will never stop supporting, expecting, believing.