Amidst some good MFW content recently (Sunday morning contributions aside), there were a couple of cracking guest blogs last week.
One was from George Devo, who eloquently and sensibly asked the question ‘do we really want to get promoted?’, and the other was by Radio Times writer and City fan, Hannah Shaddock, who implored us all to embrace and enjoy the football we are watching right now.
Both pieces struck a chord, and shot (cue music) into MFW’s ‘top five’ most-read for the last fortnight, but more importantly generated discussion and debate.
The answers to both questions raised were of course two emphatics ayes, and it goes without saying that for all its well-known ills, the Premier League is the place to be. We already know we would love it and hate it. And Hannah was spot on in saying that this season-to-end-all-seasons simply has be enjoyed regardless of its outcome.
But George got me thinking – pretty much for the first time – of what life really could be like next season if the P word were to come to fruition, and it immediately became clear why, behind the sheer undiluted joy this season has bestowed, there is an almost unspoken sense of trepidation over what may lie ahead.
Let’s not sugar coat it – relegation scraps in the Premier League are grim. Out of the 38 games, there are twelve from which anything other than defeat is regarded as a bonus, which leaves 26 from which to cobble together the 40ish points needed to survive. And, in the spirit of being brutally honest, it leaves scars.
Putting aside for once second the joie de vivre that has engulfed almost every aspect of Norwich City FC this season, the soul-destroying nature of seasons 2004/05, 2013/14 and 2015/16 all left varying degrees of bruising.
From 2004/05, the 6-0 at Craven Cottage on the final day will always be remembered ahead of the thrilling 2-0 win over Manchester Utd in April of that season, in the same way City fans can still picture all 5 foot 8 inches of Simon Charlton lining up alongside Craig Fleming at centre-back as readily as they can recall Hucks’ four brilliant assists in the 4-4 vs Middlesbrough. The thrills were smothered by the nightmares.
Similarly, the Chris Hughton era, despite those home wins over Manchester Utd and Arsenal and that thrilling end-of-season away win at Man City, will be remembered more for the soul-draining style of football and lack of swashbuckle than anything that could remotely be described as joyous.
And less said about the preparation, recruitment and value-for-money that underpinned the Alex Neil Premier League season the better.
In fact, to spin it on its head, of the five seasons that City have dined at the top table this century, only the Paul Lambert campaign and the unbeaten run in the autumn of Hughton’s second season conjure up fond memories, and even they are punctuated with the odd shellacking, usually at the hands of either Man City of Liverpool.
So, yes, there are still some scars and just talking about it fills one with a faint element of dread. The bruising, while long gone, is still tender if you prod it, and so to feel a little reticent about the prospect of promotion is perfectly understandable.
Ask Huddersfield fans. Ask Fulham fans.
But – and thank god there is a but – there have been a couple of very obvious and high-profile reminders that it doesn’t have to be that way, and I’m not even talking about Huddersfield’s successful first season, which looks increasingly like it was the product of a promotion ‘bounce’.
Firstly, the aforementioned Fulham have offered up a classic example of how not to do it. Despite only gaining promotion via the playoffs last season, they were widely recognised as the best footballing side in the division who played with a style that, with a few additions and tweaks, could well thrive in the Premier League.
But no, rather than base their new campaign on what worked well for them in 2018/19, they ripped it up and started again, spunking over £100 million on new players in the process. And, surprise surprise, it didn’t work. Two managers later, they are heading from whence they came.
Yet, if Fulham have given us a perfect example of how not to do it, and how it takes far more than diamonds and pearls to make a football team, last night’s events in Madrid offered up a prime example of how it can be done.
Ajax’s 4-1 win over Real Madrid, to give them a 5-3 aggregate win that took them through to the Champions League last eight, was achieved with a team that included no less than six players under the age of 22. And while they are the Real Madrid of the Eredivisie, they still operate minus a bottomless pit of money and instead rely on nurturing young players from academy to first-team.
As pointed out on Twitter last night, Ajax’s total revenue last season was dwarfed by how much the Premier League’s bottom club – West Brom – received from TV income alone. So, while in relative terms it’s not a shoestring, it’s a budget that’s more Norwich City than Man City, and their last-eight place in the Champions League has been earned via good youth development, quality coaching and some smart recruitment.
All of which means if we do achieve that P thing that we’re not really supposed to talk about, in case it tempts fate, then we should trust Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke to do it differently this time around. Besides, both have more than deserved the chance to operate at the highest level.
The players too deserve that same chance and it goes without saying that, regardless of City’s fate, Messrs Pukki, Aarons, Lewis, Buendia and Godfrey will be playing Premier League football next season. You can be sure their respective agents, if City contrive to miss out, will be busy people.
All of which adds up to the most emphatic message ever that City simply have to make these final eleven games count.
Hannah was, of course, right to say we should be soaking up every kick, header, dribble, step-over and save, but chances like this don’t come along too often, and there’s no rule that says if you just miss out this season, then next season you’re guaranteed to go close again.
This could be a once in lifetime chance to strike for gold and it is certainly the only chance that this particular squad will have to do it as a collective. The time for just ‘enjoying the ride’ is in my view over.
Okay, so the sphincter may twitch a little at the prospect of going toe-to-toe with Man City, Liverpool et al, but let’s not forget how well Farke’s first iteration coped with cup games against Arsenal and Chelsea. Some even argued at the time that his preferred style of play has a natural home in the top tier rather than the second.
Maybe, just maybe we’re going to find out.
So, yes, let’s try and enjoy the next eleven ‘cup finals’ – as much as you can enjoy football when the nerves are properly jangling – and let’s do it with no fear. Minus the fear of what lies ahead over the next two-and-a-half months and, equally, with hope in our hearts that if we were to go up this club has the right people and infrastructure to “give it a right good go”.
Never Mind the Danger.
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We’ve made a steady start but there’s still some way to go before we can look forward to, hopefully, reporting on City as they mix it with the elite of the English game. We’d really appreciate your help people.