The alarm sounds. You wake up. You rise, make yourself breakfast, have a coffee and jump in the shower. You scan your wardrobe for your desired yellow and green garment and throw it on. Tickets? Check. Railcard? Got it. The away day has started.
Whether it be Durham or Acle, expectations are high as you approach the station. The buzz, the optimism, the sense of anticipation that offers such a unique and unparalleled high kicks in. You collect your tickets. You board your train. The journey begins.
Your attention turns to the more tangible matters as the beer starts flowing and the journey progresses. What team should Farke play? Husband or Stiepermann? Vrancic or Wildschut? If only Oliviera was fit. When’s Pritchard back? Two delays and multiple changes later, you arrive at your desired destination, the place you so fervently hope to depart six hours later with three precious away points.
Such a pre-match ritual has occurred eight times for me so far in this peculiar season for City, a campaign characterised by such acute unpredictability and one that has elicited such a complex range of varying emotions.
It started in the capital, where Nelson’s late-show and subsequent antics left us all singing his name jubilantly by the Thames, encountered some alarming obstacles at Villa Park and The Den, before reaching its zenith at Bramall Lane, the Riverside and the Madjeski as part of that super September.
It’s been hard work. Even during that almost surreal set of results that preceded my return to university, City did not make it easy. Timm Klose and Christoph Zimmerman headed, blocked and tackled relentlessly for 45 minutes at a growingly vehement Bramall Lane to thwart periods of seemingly unabating pressure, while we have the usually-clinical Britt Assombalonga to thank for directing a completely free header straight at Angus Gunn from just six yards at Boro. Four days later in Berkshire, City had to fight again after James Maddison’s magic was rendered insufficient in attaining a televised win.
Cameron Jerome was the hero that day. The tenacious, indefatigable and Wembley-scoring Jerome who it seems will continually be derided as a scapegoat by those fans who lack the perceptiveness to diagnose City’s real problems. Yes, it is regrettable that Jerome was poor at the Macron on Saturday, but what my six-hour round trip from the north-east was rewarded with that day was a performance that underwhelmed collectively and lacked the requisite bite, purpose or penetration necessary at this level.
It had started so well for City. The opening half-an-hour constituted a dominant Championship display, a period where the impressive Harrison Reed and ‘super’ Tom Tybull saw considerable amounts of possession and assisted moves that saw Farke’s side get in behind on several occasions through Ivo Pinto, Yanic Wildschut and Jerome. When the real chance came, Jerome blew it.
But forget Jerome. While his hold-up play lacked its usual reliability and his finishing was familiarly wasteful, City’s collective inability to respond to going two goals behind against a Bolton side who had shipped 28 goals in 15 games before yesterday was the issue of real concern.
Once again, our build-up play was pedestrian, lateral and laboured, delineating an undesired sense of continuity between the current regime and the one that Alan Irvine inherited in March this year.
Although we have seen change – City do move the ball slightly quicker now – our possession under Alex Neil also lacked the penetration and end-product that sides such as Nuno’s Wolves and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United have demonstrated in so much abundance this season. This may be a – to employ a much over-used cliché by Norwich fans this season – ‘work in progress’, but such a lack of purpose when we have the ball needs to be addressed urgently.
I’m still confident Farke can deliver. He resolved the defensive issues that became manifest in August with laudable rapidity over September’s international break. Although the solidity we all crave has yet to fully come to fruition – set pieces remain a concern and Zimmerman was slow to track Gary Madine’s run in Lancashire – September’s resilience on the road showed us all that this side are capable of thwarting attacks for ninety minutes. Farke must now focus on enhancing our efficacy when we are doing the attacking ourselves.
The return of Alex Pritchard and the mercurial Nelson will inevitably help. While Jerome has done little to eradicate our creativity-related problems, fans calling for the return of Carlton Morris and the premature call-up of Tristan Abrahams – as alluded to by the eminent Robin Sainty on Twitter on Saturday evening – are missing the point. Instead, it is our side’s overall lack of ideas going forward and our inability to chase a game when falling behind that needs amending.
The impending two-week break has come at a good time. With a winnable home game against Barnsley and a trip to the City Ground awaiting us after England’s international travails, Farke has a chance to improve our purpose and sense of direction when we have the ball. It is a cruel irony that last season’s seemingly irreparable defensive woes have now been replaced by bleak inability to score goals, a problem that is only exacerbated when we find ourselves behind. On so many occasions so far this season, that first goal has proved crucial.
So now we wait. We can only hope that Oliviera’s injury frustration can be terminally put to rest over the next fortnight, while Pritchard’s lengthy rehabilitation process continues to show signs of promise. Their respective returns are key. Three months into a long-term and ever-developing project, City lie just three points off the play-offs and not far off the pace.
Farke will learn from Saturday’s defeat. Next time that alarm sounds and I embark on another trip across the country, I am confident that I’ll be able to witness something more rewarding.