It’s 2018. The footballing festivities have reached their conclusion and the annual FA Cup third round weekend has just been contested. Manchester City are dominant in the Premier League. Theresa May is Prime Minister. Brexit is still happening. Everything, apart from one thing, remains the same.
Alan Irvine is in charge of Norwich City. Meanwhile, Daniel Farke continues to exist as an anonymity, bellowing orders at his Borussia Dortmund II team but largely remaining a figure ubiquitously unheard of amongst the outside world. Farke is a good coach, diligently disciplining his side and leading them to reasonable success in the German fourth division. He still awaits his opportunity at a bigger, potentially English club.
Events at Carrow Road are different, however. The structural changes of March last year have still occurred. The impressive Steve Stone remains in charge as Manging Director, working closely alongside the ambitiously-appointed Stuart Webber. But rather than the radical change we have witnessed since May, City’s fortunes have instead been characterised by a greater sense of continuity, manifest in the appointment of Alan Irvine as permanent manager following his successful spell as Caretaker.
How are we faring? Relatively well. Irvine is a solid manager, far from a tactical genius but one who is adept enough to extract consistently impressive performances from his players. He knows the league. He knows the English game. City fans have faith in him to deliver.
This article, of course, is entirely hypothetical. I – just like the rest of us – am clueless about what life at Norwich City would currently be looking like without the presence of Daniel Farke and the subsequent Germanic influx.
Recently, however, and in light of our team’s inability to deliver on anywhere near like a consistent enough basis, I have been thinking about the other routes the club’s top brass could have taken towards the twilight of last season.
There was never any talk of Alan Irvine succeeding Alex Neil on a permanent basis. He was never seriously considered by the board, fans nor the wider footballing community as the man to inherit our formerly ageing squad and transform it into a viable Championship force.
However, his appointment would have been a safe choice. He possessed the skills required to succeed in the division. With hindsight, the drastic change of last summer may not have been what was necessary in order to secure a return to the top flight.
Many of you reading this will invariably be perplexed. I don’t blame you. The notion that Irvine should be in charge of City does seem ridiculous, particularly given our recent – albeit slow – improvement and the emergence of more promising signs from Farke’s team. But let’s look at the facts…
Under Irvine, our record was good, winning five, drawing two and losing three of his ten games in charge. One of those draws came against Blackburn, the day after Neil’s departure and thus providing Irvine with a mere matter of hours to prepare his team. The other was at Leeds on the penultimate day, throwing away a three-goal lead after a majestic first-half performance that saw City play with a flair, tempo and dynamism that a Neil-led side failed to ever deliver on the road.
The defeats came against good sides: Fulham, Huddersfield and Aston Villa. However, it was the performances during his tenure that were more revealing, with City appearing considerably more organised, resolute and tenacious while still playing with the attacking verve we demonstrated in so much abundance under Neil at Carrow Road.
Seven goals were scored on that remarkable April day when Reading travelled to the Fine City, while the displays witnessed against Preston, Brighton and Queens Park Rangers were saturated with similar levels of creativity.
Summer change would still have been required under Irvine’s leadership. The recruitment of capable Championship defenders was critical, while the replacement of Jonny Howson and the signing of an additional forward – the latter of which failed to happen anyway – was of equal significance. Irvine was surely aware of this.
Let’s not forget, this is a man who recognised the supreme talent of James Maddison and liberated him from the pitches of Colney, simultaneously allowing Alex Pritchard an extended run in the side and enabling him to find that sparkling form he has shown recent signs of emulating this season.
An Irvine side would not look radically different to the one we find ourselves with now. Yes, he may have been more reluctant to embrace Webber’s German scouting mission that Farke was. However, was such a radical policy even required?
In City’s current best XI, only Angus Gunn, Grant Hanley, and Tom Tybull were not at the club last season. Granted, there was a considerable amount of deadwood, but the extreme change of personnel seen with that influx of players was in no way necessary. Defending was our principal shortcoming last season. In hindsight, smaller and subtler change was what was required; the acquisition of a reliable centre-half or two to partner Timm Klose and the blooding of youth such as the flourishing Jamal Lewis.
The fundamental difference under Irvin’s leadership would be the team’s direction, with the former providing City with a more experienced, orthodox and purposeful Championship approach instead of the latter’s obstinate insistence on patient, laboured, possession-based football that appears to have stifled our goal scoring threat.
Look at Cardiff. Look at Derby. Look at Sheffield United and Aston Villa. It is no coincidence that the majority of the division’s top sides are managed by experienced, British managers. Farke had no idea what this league entailed. Indeed, it is likely that City under Irvine would be sitting significantly higher up the table than Farke’s team are today.
Sixteen points from his difficult ten games in charge was a decent return. The team he achieved that with will have been improved over the summer: made more solid, made slightly younger, made fitter and made hungrier for success. Irvine is a good coach with an approachable demeanour, a man aware of what needed to change at the club and one with the requisite experience to implement it effectively. More generally, he should never have been allowed to leave at all.
This isn’t an ode to Alan Irvine. Nor is it even a piece fervently arguing that he should have been appointed City manager on a permanent basis. Instead, it is merely an expression of the fact that the radical change we experienced last summer may have not been what was most conducive to achieving promotion in this crucial season. We are all acutely aware of the financial obstacles that will confront the club should a return to the top flight not be attained. Such a scenario looks likely to ensue.
I really do hope Webber’s faith in Farke will pay dividends and lead to some form of long-term success. Having been at St Andrew’s, The Pirelli, the Millwall game and the visit of Chelsea on Saturday, we are showing palpable signs of improvement.
However, with such notable inconsistency appearing to have become an inherent characteristic of this team combined with the potentially-imminent departure of our two most creative players, optimism concerning any form of ascent up the table remains limited.
I may be completely wrong. Perhaps Irvine was never cut out to be City manager. Regardless, pondering on where our club may be under a more conventional, experienced and domestically-nurtured form of leadership remains a thought-provoking task that may render Webber’s apparent boldness of the summer a fatal mistake.