It’s just been just over three years since Ricky van Wolfswinkel scored those two goals. Two years since our much-maligned forward miraculously scored twice in that emphatic pre-season game at Braintree.
It was a warm Tuesday night. City had travelled to the insalubrious Cressing Road under the recently-appointed and relatively popular Neil Adams. Ricky’s ostensibly clinical antics up top had helped us obtain a 6-1 win. Optimism was intensifying over a potentially successful assault on next season’s Championship summit. So far, so good.
Social media amongst the Canary nation entered some form of minor meltdown. City fans began hailing the ‘return of Ricky’, the re-emergence of our contemporarily record signing, the rebirth of a player whose physical shortcomings and palpable indecision in front of goal had frustrated so many of us over the previous year. Owing to a Braintree brace, Ricky was back.
Nonsense. It took just twenty-one days after that game at Braintree on July 15 for van Wolfwinkel to be jettisoned, sent out on loan to Ligue 1 and the less than considerable heights of Saint-Etienne. 28 appearances and 5 goals later, Ricky returned. A solitary goal at Rotherham in that notorious League Cup game – thanks, Lewis Grabban – and Ricky was gone for good.
Memories of that misguided Braintree optimism had been eradicated at the expense of a regrettable realisation of van Wolfswinkel’s acute limitations as a forward in England.
Such a reaction and subsequent events only served to portray the inherent danger of pre-season friendlies. Rather than allowing players to gel, gain fitness and to enhance chemistry, many of us perceive them to be unequivocally representative of what is to come.
Many employ their results as a means of predicting the future, a way of determining the nature of the impending season and the extent to which us fans can anticipate success. As in the anecdotal tale of Ricky, such a way of consuming these results can function as problematic.
Last week witnessed the antithesis of the van Wolfswinkel case study. Daniel Farke’s inaugural fixture in charge against an English team in the football league ended in a somewhat unspectacular 2-2 draw at Stevenage, a result that justifiably failed to captivate the masses yet one that prompted a plethora of fan reaction.
Some cared, others didn’t. Some were critical, others were apathetic. Some praised the new look Norwich City, others lambasted our familiar inability to deal with set pieces and defend in a competent manner.
Some fans need to understand that friendlies serve a variegated purpose, one that encompasses notions of unity and chemistry but one that does not include the rousing of expectation and hope.
History unambiguously suggests the futility of reading too much into these games, the unhelpful nature of appropriating their results as a way of judging the future. Like a Jaffa Cake, we all have our own ways of consuming them. Such a spectrum of consumption necessitates a change.
Following the draw at Stevenage, many were vehemently critical of young Ben Godfrey, a promising midfielder who was deployed in defence by Farke in a fundamentally new and alien system.
Yes, Godfrey made mistakes. However, such a response was profoundly unwarranted, a sense of injustice only heightened by Godfrey’s terrific performances at home to Coventry and away to Southampton in the two cup competitions last term. Godfrey deserves better. He will learn.
A fan on Twitter correctly pointed out that City won all their pre-season games under Bryan Gunn, a string of results that themselves may have served to encourage optimism for the League One campaign but ones that proved to bear no resemblance to the reality and that ruthless 7-1 mauling by Paul Lambert’s Colchester United on the opening day.
The results of friendlies are meaningless. Period.
Nevertheless, they do possess importance. Instead of providing fans with a metre by which they can judge the upcoming season, they instead serve a more internal purpose: facilitating the implementation of new tactics and enabling players to augment their fitness levels and play together.
They are there to allow the likes of Angus Gunn, Christoph Zimmerman and Harrison Reed to understand and execute Farke’s desired way of playing, to give players such as James Husband and Mario Vrancic the chance to meet more long-term Carrow Road faces and to foster unity amongst the camp.
Such a purpose must be remembered by fans. Rather than criticise a missed Cameron Jerome header or to prematurely assert that City are yet to resolve their previously witnessed defensive vulnerabilities, friendlies’ significance lies more in experimentation, investigation and innovation.
We must allow Farke and his team time to enact their ideas and creativity, give them the summer to mould this City side into one capable of playing with sustained dynamism, energy and intensity. It may take a few matches. A mid-July draw at the Lamex is hardly worthy of any genuine concern.
With under twenty days remaining, the season is coming. Days are being booked off work and September away trips – cricket on Saturdays inhibits my attendance during August – to Brammall Lane, the Riverside and the Madjeski are entering their initial stages of planning.
As City train (and play) in Germany, Farke and co are aware that the clock is ticking.
The expectation is there for them to deliver. However, that expectation is something that should derive from leadership, recruitment and tactics rather than pre-season performances at Stevenage, Crown Meadow and the Willi-Hafer Stadium.
During the summer period, rationale and common sense is vital. The summer matters, but for reasons that many of us so frequently forget. Let’s not judge results until August 5. That is when the real work begins. Between now and then, however, let us all spare a thought for Ricky.