“I think the most pleasing thing of the year has been the connection with the fans and being able to share brilliant experiences with them.”
You could be forgiven for assuming those words emanated from a Colney press conference, rather than Gareth Southgate’s reflections on England’s passage to the Nations League Semi-finals.
Southgate, like Daniel Farke, is currently riding on a wave of positivity and optimism borne out of largely unexpected success on the pitch.
Unfancied before the World Cup, England upset the Bookies and captivated the nation’s fans before ultimately bowing out in the Semi-final. The bond with the fanbase has been strengthened during the Nations League; a tournament which perhaps doesn’t naturally capture the imagination but provided a notable victory over Spain, in Saville, and the opportunity to exact some form of revenge over Croatia.
But a connection which is built solely upon results, disappears as quickly as you can say ‘losing streak’ and heroes can become zeroes on the back of a few defeats.
The secret of Southgate’s success has been to craft a playing squad that share his philosophy, and like the man himself, is – for want of a better word – ‘likeable’.
He has brought together players who appear to be happy and grateful to pull on the three lions and who are not burdened with the weight of expectation that has overwhelmed previous iterations, including the so-called golden generation.
And so, it is with Norwich City.
On his arrival in Norfolk in May 2017, Farke spoke of the honour and his gratitude at being appointed as Head Coach and he has subsequently taken to the media to remind his players that representing our club is a privilege.
He has always said the right things, and with a similarly unassuming and affable character to the England boss, it was difficult not to like the person; it was just that the football and the results he delivered in his first season were so often hard to stomach.
There will be those, who maintain that they saw ‘this’ coming; those with an unwavering belief in ‘the project’, which simply required time and patience to come to fruition.
I’ll admit right now, that I was not one of them.
I had us ear-marked for a season floating around the bottom-half of the table and the occasional flirtation with the bottom-three.
I’ll also admit to being absolutely thrilled with being so wrong.
It’s not the league table that gives the most pleasure, although it’s hard to suppress a smile at seeing the ever-widening chasm being created between ourselves and those down the road.
It’s the fact that this team is – like Southgate’s England – immensely likeable.
Not since the days of Paul Lambert, have I felt such a strong connection to the players of our football club. Players, you sense, who are genuinely grateful for the opportunity to represent us.
The attempts at building on Lambert’s achievements and the quest to become an established Premier League side saw the Club invest at unprecedented levels, with transfer records broken and a wage structure ripped up and redefined.
But it also changed the dynamic and underlying ethos within the team. Players turned up who created the impression that they were doing us a favour by signing and who would jump ship at the first opportunity or were simply here for a pay-day and were happy to go through the motions on inflated salaries.
That may be a hugely unfair accusation, but it was my perception as a fan and one that really damaged the connection I had with the team.
I wanted them to win, of course, but that was down to expectation;
‘If you’re being paid a stack of money to play for the club I love, then go out and earn it.’
This season, I had no expectations. I figured that the financial restructuring would leave us shorn of what ‘talent’ remained and with a squad comprised of foreign journeymen, free signings and academy graduates.
And perhaps that’s what we’ve got?
But if that’s the case, it has also brought with it a team that is top of the league, playing delightful football and which is a genuine joy to watch.
It’s a team that I want to win because I can see what it means to them. A team that is seemingly taking as much pleasure in what they’ve achieved as we take from their achievements.
These days, I stay behind to applaud their efforts, because I enjoy watching and feeling the camaraderie. No token gestures or fake kissing of the badge to try and endear; instead a genuine delight in the moment.
The fact that these players are upsetting the odds and out-performing teams that both the national media and the bookmakers believe to be far more capable of mounting a promotion challenge simply serves to create a stronger bond.
It may all go pear-shaped, of course. In fact, by the time these words are published, the streak may have already come to an end (never fear Steve, all good – Ed), but there is a togetherness and spirit within the club that makes it a joy to follow right now.
And when all is said and done, that is surely why we all support Norwich City.