The delight of my day job – writing and broadcasting about football – is that, unlike the bloke up the pub, I have a public platform from which to spout my opinions.
The problem is that, unlike the bloke up the pub, when I talk tosh, there is a record of my blatherings.
I still cringe, 35 years later, when I remember the naive certainty with which I espoused balderdash for the Pink Un as a young man. I was covering John Bond’s Norwich in the old First Division and postulated a couple of wonderfully stupid views about Liverpool players in reports of games at Anfield.
A famed striker was pressed into service into the Liverpool midfield because John Toshack was doing so well as Kevin Keegan’s partner in attack. I pontificated that the emergency midfielder looked uncomfortable in the role.
Ray Kennedy prospered in midfield for Liverpool, England and then Swansea for about a decade. I didn’t think much of a bloke who made his Liverpool debut against Norwich. Well, he’d joined from Ipswich and was standing in for Toshack. My critique argued he wasn’t up to the task.
David Johnson helped Liverpool to the League, FA Cup and European Cup treble that season and he went on to win two more European Cups with them.
Over the decades of watching football and having to state my opinions, experience taught me to make far fewer crass misjudgements – but I got things horribly wrong about Simon Lappin.
When Peter Grant stocked the City squad with players signed from Scotland I worried that they would lack the athleticism for English football’s second tier (because I’d watched Neil Lennon playing for Nottingham Forest against Leeds in tier three and, although he’d played in the Scottish Cup final a few months earlier, the game at the City Ground passed him by).
As Grant’s Norwich struggled, my prejudice against his purchases from Scotland became stronger and, in Grant’s last game (that wretched 1-0 defeat at QPR three years ago this month) Lappin’s apparent inability to get back once he had ventured forward was cruelly exposed by a team who, before that night, had managed one goal and one point from four home games.
Glenn Roeder arrived and kept Lappin in the team – for a short while. It always seemed to me that in November 2007 Roeder picked a team to lose at Plymouth, so that he could justify a decision he had already made – to cull some of the squad.
Lappin was one of those who did not play again under Roeder after the dismal 3-0 defeat at Home Park.
In the January Roeder bought the ball-winning Matty Pattison. The following summer he signed Sammy Clingan and a certain Wes Hoolahan. I can’t have been the only one who thought they were three fine acquisitions, all significantly better than Lappin.
And the fact that the midfielder played in the Scottish Premier Division on loan only seemed to confirm the shoddy standard north of the border.
When Bryan Gunn restored Lappin to the team, it seemed a move born out of financial necessity rather than much else. Lappin was still on the books, still drawing a wage and the board wanted him used.
Last season, of course, Lappin thrived – albeit in League One – and I admitted on this website how wrong I had been. I return to the subject now because nothing Lappin did in last season’s campaign was as impressive as his efforts in the pre-season friendlies this summer.
For the second time in his Norwich career, it was obvious he was being discarded. For those parts of the friendlies in which manager Paul Lambert used his first choice “diamond”, Andrew Surman took the left-midfield berth and displayed very tidy close skills and quick feet.
The twisting and darting Anthony McNamee was another option for the left side of the team. Yet, whenever Lappin was given an outing, however brief, in the pre-season games, he just got his head down and worked. Well, actually, he kept his head up, metaphorically (in that he refused to let his spirits flag) and physically (in that he keeps a clear view of what is around him when he has possession).
When the season proper began, Lappin was still a bench-warmer, but remained sufficiently motivated to make significant contributions – like when he was sent on a minute from the end at Scunthorpe (perhaps to run down the clock with the substitution) and delivered the sublime cross from which Grant Holt stooped to conquer.
Now, with Surman injured, Lappin is first choice. He cannot assume he will remain first pick. But, as he has demonstrated amply, he has the character and ability (and, yes athleticism) to prove people wrong.
Of all the daft debates among football fans, has there ever been a more senseless discussion than whether Lambert’s diamond “works”?
Does it work? Hello, Earth calling. Have a deco at last season’s League One table. Then look at this season’s Championship.
There are potential problems with the diamond, as with any system. The diamond produces a narrow midfield, and astute teams attack us down the wings. Leicester targeted our left-flank, for instance.
But Lambert doesn’t adhere to the formation out of bloody-mindedness. He opted for it and has persevered with it because it makes the most of Hoolahan.
A less inventive manager would have stuck Hoolahan out wide in a 4-4-2. But, as we discovered with Darren Huckerby and Spurs are learning with Rafael van der Vaart, geniuses don’t always stick to the brief.
Hucks, bless him, tracked back so seldom that Adam Drury had the loneliest job in football. Van der Vaart plays where the mood takes him, and Harry Redknapp frets about the area he vacates when he wanders.
Hoolahan is a similar spirit, so Lambert has stuck him at the top of the diamond.
Away from home, Hoolahan’s task is to be the first line of defence, harrying the man with the ball while the City players behind him deploy themselves in two ranks. At Forest in particular, he was outstanding at that.
When City have possession, Hoolahan is in the area which gives opposition teams a problem. Defenders don’t like to step forward to mark WH, but does a holding midfield player pick him up, and desert the role of sweeping in front of the defence?
And who goes with him when he drifts out to the left?
To make the diamond work, the enforcer at its base has to be on his game – and although Lambert expected David Fox to do that job, Andrew Crofts has been ruggedly resolute there, especially after starting so well on the right of midfield.
And, Drury and Russell Martin have to provide the width in attack and then scuttle back if needed to defend. We all know that Drury is one of the best practitioners of his position we’ve had the fortune to see in a yellow shirt but I am surprised that Martin has divided opinion.
The diamond asks a lot of him, especially while Korey Smith, who operates ahead of him, is still learning, but Martin is so much braver, fitter and honest (in the football sense) than Jon Otsemobor.
As for the left of the diamond, well, at the moment the job is being filled by someone who is doing rather well at proving outstanding balls into the box. He’s a Scottish bloke who looks Spanish.