2007 was not a fruitful year for Andrew Strauss. The former England captain had gone sixteen Test matches without a century.
His average resembled that of an Ed Balls score on Strictly, lingering in the mid-twenties and failing to impress those passing scrutiny over his performance. He became psychologically fragile. By March 2008, his confidence had plummeted to almost unsalvageable levels.
It all changed in Napier. After a first-innings duck and against an attack possessing the menacing Tim Southee and wily Daniel Vettori, Strauss stood tall. 177 runs after striding to the crease in what was a self-confessed last chance saloon scenario, Strauss’ status as a Test match player was maintained.
On Saturday in South Yorkshire, Hillsborough represents Strauss’ Napier for Norwich City. The misery of Burton, Rotherham and Barnsley must be rapidly relinquished and replaced with notions of character and responsibility.
The 2000 loyal followers behind the goal will not have travelled 150 miles north to witness another display of spinelessness, weakness and vulnerability. It’s time for our players to deliver.
Sunday’s derby stalemate constituted a setback. So did that rudderless outing at the Pirelli. But twelve games remain. With a minimal three-point gap between City and sixth place so irresistibly looming, we must believe.
We’ve seen glimpses from this underachieving squad. Let us nostalgically reflect back to that jubilant trip to the City Ground in September, Forest’s reciprocal visit to Carrow Road last month, or that New Year domination of Derby County in front of an albeit subdued home crowd. On our day, we are capable.
It’s not a question of application. City’s players work tenaciously, committing themselves to the Canary cause and maximising their efforts in order to satisfy their unwavering levels of support.
Any onlooker could visibly perceive just how conspicuous our players’ disappointment was after that fateful trip to Staffordshire last weekend, feebly dawdling over to those in the terrace and delineating their frustration at letting us down once again.
It was an unpleasant sight.
It’s a question of mentality. A question of our talented players applying and pragmatically adapting their skills to the physical demands of the second tier. They must prepare for these demanding away trips, reminding themselves of the money and time invested by their fans and motivating each other to deliver the task in hand.
Timm Klose and Russell Martin must watch tapes of the clinical Fernando Foristieri, making themselves aware of his trickery and ability to manufacture something out of nothing.
Attackers must be ready to exploit Wednesday’s weaknesses, just as Jacob Murphy so intelligently and unerringly did on Sunday lunchtime when he caught Bartosz Bialkowski out at his near post.
Jonny Howson and Alex Tettey must be aware of their critical responsibility to distribute the ball faster and with additional penetration, facilitating enhanced potency going forward.
Wednesday are vulnerable. Consecutive losses at home to Brentford and at Elland Road will have inevitably eroded mentalities of confidence.
The gap between their central defenders – Glenn Loovens and Vincent Sasso – that led to Chris Wood’s decisive strike resembled the newly revamped A11 when really it should have been that of a rural Norfolk road. In Saturday’s daylight, the Owls’ defenders were nocturnal.
City have a duty to exploit these shortcomings. They have a duty to finally deliver the fans some profoundly-overdue joy. Alex Neil must get his team selection right, deploying the combative and vocal Steven Naismith in an offensive combination with Wes Hoolahan and constantly-developing Jacob Murphy.
Regrettably, Alex Pritchard does not possess the requisite fight nor physicality to compete in these tough contests.
City know that it’s now or never. Even the eternal optimists must concede a nine-point gap at this stage of the season will be fundamentally insurmountable, condemning the club to another campaign of Championship travails. With the exception of one vehement caller on Sunday’s Canary Call, nobody wants that.
If our players fail to perform at Hillsborough – unambiguously the most significant game of our season – they do not deserve to stake any claims to the Premier League. It’s occasions like this weekend where heroes are born, propelling City to a victory capable of really igniting a viable play-off push.
It’s not over yet.
Granted, the statistics – away record, results against the top teams, goals conceded, the list goes on – constitute grossly grim reading, but Saturday is as much about on-the-day psychology as it is about what’s come before.
If City equip themselves mentally, prepare thoroughly and continually remind themselves of just how significant this solitary game is in keeping them in contention, they are capable.
After a season characterised by frustration, aversion and ultimate disappointment, it feels as though Neil and his players really do have an obligation to give the devoted punters something back.
If they deliver tomorrow, there’ll be no better time. Strauss did it and went on to achieve remarkable things. Almost a decade on, City have an equally precious opportunity.