What fascinates about this evening’s 1-1 draw with four-times European champions Ajax is that the best of City may still be to come.
For bar a 21-minute, second-half run-out for Robert Snodgrass at the end of a richly entertaining contest – lit up by two, stunning first-half goals – the fact is that this remains the Class of 2011-12 just getting better; the potential new stars of 2012-2013 have yet to figure large.
Jacob Butterfield is one; Michael Turner may prove another.
Neither figured this evening; their moment in the Carrow Road spotlight is still to come; ditto Steven Whittaker, who remains Norwich’s lone pre-season casualty.
Otherwise, new boss Chris Hughton fought off a spirited and richly talented Dutch side with Paul Lambert’s legacy; one that featured Grant Holt and James Vaughan paired up front from the start; Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson providing a central midfield platform; Ryan Bennett and Elliott Ward providing the two centre-halves.
The defensive and attacking width was straight off last summer’s team-sheet – Russell Martin at right-back; Marc Tierney at left-back; Elliott Bennett to one side; Anthony Pilkington to the other.
In a sense, nothing has changed.
Bar one, huge point.
That all these players are a year older, a year wiser and a year more confident in their own abilities as Premier League footballers. And, as crucially, all are a year more comfortable in each other’s company.
They have long ‘fitted’ together, like a hand in a glove.
There has been no upheaval; no summer revolution. Just 23 and 24-year-old players evolving into better, stronger footballers.
Something, you sense, that Hughton has long recognised – hence his comments to BBC Radio Norfolk in the run-up to tonight’s contest.
That given the quality of player he has now discovered on the playing fields of Colney, he can bide his time transfer-wise; pick and choose his player carefully.
“We’ll carry on continually searching to improve the squad,” he said.
“If we do, great. If we don’t, we’ll work with the quality – and it is very good quality – that we already have here.”
It took just seven minutes for Pilkington to prove the manager’s point this evening with a top corner free-kick of genuine quality; enough to rock the visiting Dutch giants back on their heels – or at least until the half-hour mark when Lasse Schone matched like for like quality-wise and drove a 25-yard pearler away and beyond John Ruddy.
After the break and the Canaries needed to have their defensive wits about them as Ajax pushed and probed their way into the danger zone; Bennett (Ryan) clearing off the line just before the hour-mark with Ruddy for once beaten.
For the watching Hughton, this evening’s contest may well have simply reinforced his earlier comments – with Butterfield and Turner in the building and awaiting their chance, why rush back to the transfer market and break the bank for someone who might disrupt such a promising work in progress?
The squad may need ‘thinning’ before the summer is out; a loan opportunity might best suit one of the two, younger keepers; where and when Butterfield slips into the manager’s thinking will be telling; Vaughan certainly looks hungry – Simeon Jackson and Chrissy Martin will also be running the numbers as the Barnsley boy wonder begins to pick up the pace fitness-wise.
The talk tonight, incidentally, was of Vaughan making a loan switch to Blackburn Rovers.
Likewise, at the back Turner will get his chance once he ties up a few odds and ends move-wise – but at whose expense?
And will Hughton use his wealth of Premier League contacts to pull a season-long loan out of the bag, Naughton-style?
We’ll see. For now, however, I would take away wins at Celtic and home draws with Ajax as signs of genuine evolution from within that existing City squad; for now, the Hughton revolution can wait.