As I write, we’re not promoted – but we’re very close.
In the end, the reason we’re close is a difference between ourselves and Leeds. Nothing to do with fluent football; all to do with character. In the cauldron of promotion and facing dogged opponents, we’ve dug deep and kept our unbeaten run intact. Despite their more experienced players and much-vaunted manager, Leeds have wilted.
Character has been a defining quality of our team – entirely appropriate that it’s now proving a decisive one.
As we try to reflect and get perspective on this most special of seasons, a movie may help us.
It’s my wife’s favourite film, Remember the Titans.
Set in the South of the US in 1971, it stars Denzel Washington as a black football coach parachuted into a white High School as part of forced integration.
Racial integration is fundamentally good, of course, but its initial impact is to unleash a flood of distrust, anger and resentment. The challenges and divisions set that school at a disadvantage against its non-integrated rivals.
Out of these divided and unpromising elements, the coach forges a multiracial team with a bond so strong that it becomes unbeatable – and in the process helps to unite the fractured community.
It sounds cheesy and improbable. But it’s a true story.
There are striking parallels with Norwich City this season. Our foreign Head Coach came into a new environment with huge challenges. Last summer, finances dictated that his two most valuable players were sold. He was forced to assemble a team from the disparate elements of the Norwich Academy and players whose careers had stalled elsewhere.
Out of it, he’s created a group with the kind of bond and unity that marked the Titans. A team that’s scored 89 goals, many of them to earn points in the final throes of games.
And galvanised a city.
Norwich City’s adventure is being followed far and wide, including across the Pond. I know, because I’ve got my wife’s American family involved.
We’ve reached the point where I message updates to them during the course of games. It might be a detailed assessment of a first half – or just “Pukki!”.
Explaining the background of our season to them has reminded me just how remarkable it is. Before July I’d barely heard of Max Aarons or Teemu Pukki. By the end, they’re walking off with armfuls of awards – Max beating off more experienced and higher-profile competitors as the league’s Young Player of the Season, and Teemu sweeping aside all-comers as the overall Championship Player of the Season.
Those two, plus Jamal Lewis, featured in the Championship’s Team of the Year. And none of them cost Norwich a penny.
Of course, City do have better-known experienced pros, some of whom we’ve paid significant money for: Timm Klose, Grant Hanley, Mo Leitner, Jordan Rhodes. If City were to show improvement this season, most of us imagined they’d be at the centre of it. But none of them has featured during the run that’s taken us to the verge of promotion.
Does that mean they haven’t contributed? Quite the opposite: they’ve been giving constant encouragement and guidance to those on the field – including the young players keeping them out of the team.
Speaking of encouragement and guidance to young players, I’ve enjoyed many recent articles by my fellow writers here – but none more so than Will Jennings’ piece in praise of Tim Krul.
Tim’s commitment to the Farke cause has been evident from Day 1. With that commitment, his inevitable mistakes after a long time on the sidelines must have been doubly painful to him. And his recent key saves must have been doubly satisfying. Tim has simply been a major factor in our success this season.
In fact, I don’t remember seeing such a united and mutually supportive group at any club, not just ours, in all the years (and it’s more years than I care to think about) that I’ve been following football.
In one way, the comparison with Remember the Titans doesn’t quite work. Yes, all the magic and plaudits for Norwich have come this year. But it’s been a two-year project.
For reasons of both finance and culture, the high-paid and low-performing squad inherited by Webber and Farke had to be changed from top to bottom. How many of the recent starting XI were part of our first-team squad two years ago? Not one.
Stuart Webber warned us that a couple of transfer windows and one pre-season wouldn’t do it. The fundamentals of Farke’s philosophy were put in place last season, together with tailored development plans for Ben Godfrey, Todd Cantwell and others. But the pieces weren’t complete.
Last summer, the final pieces were bolted on – notably the kind of attacking players needed to make ‘Farkeball’ work. The brave decision to put young players in the team, and keep them there, has proved the icing on the cake.
This season wasn’t a change of direction – it was the completion of a systematically constructed, and systematically executed, plan.
If Daniel Farke’s humour belies the German stereotype, his planning does not. And his passion is irresistible.
However it finishes, it’s been a very remarkable and special year.
Others will start speculating about the future. We don’t know how long this group will stay together, or where each one will end up. But one thing’s for certain: like us, they’ll never forget this season.
The season they were Titans.