Sober assessments of today’s events at Carrow Road are likely to be in short supply over the next 48-hours.
With many a good reason, supporters will head to their message board of choice and vent their fury at Norwich’s endless inability of late to ever make a lasting impression in a cup competition. Only this time they excelled themselves by losing at home to non-league opposition – quite a feat given City’s wretched standards in the cup shocker department.
First, however, credit where credit is due. Luton wanted it more and arrived in Norfolk with a settled side and a simple game plan.
‘Hatters boss Paul Buckle has made his FA Cup plans for the weekend very obvious – keep Luton’s Premiership hosts at arm’s length for as long as possible and then gun for a late winner…’ was the intro to last night’s preview piece. And, boy, didn’t Chris Hughton’s one-time apprentice at Brentford stick to it.
To the letter.
Even to the extent of throwing two, fresh pair of legs up front with 17 minutes to go – one of whom skipped down the wing as Russell Martin struggled to cover, the other of whom nicked in ahead of both Ryan Bennett and Declan Rudd with the kind of sharp, near post finish that has been all-too missing from City’s game of late.
So fair play to Luton.
For clubs of City’s Premier League size and ilk, both cup competitions prove to be a nightmare to manage. Paul Lambert fared little better than Hughton in getting the balance right – between keeping his Premier League powder-dry players-wise and fielding a team that is strong enough in terms of competitive game-time to meet the supporters’ rightful expectations of an easy-ish afternoon against lower league opposition.
Man for man, over the course of any given season every player on that pitch in a Norwich shirt is better than his opposite number.
On one afternoon and thrown together as a ‘Cup XI’ from a dressing room already low in confidence on the back of a woeful run of winter results, the level of performance as a team was always an accident waiting to happen.
But there is another, wider point that recent events have started to highlight.
Any side is only as good as the spine that runs through it.
And at this level, the best spines have height, have presence, have strength, have character.
The spine upon which Hughton built his autumn success had Grant Holt at one end, John Ruddy at the other with Sebastien Bassong and Alexander Tettey in the middle.
Four big players for the football club, from whom the others take their cue. They – in many senses like the supporters – draw their own belief from seeing such a re-assuring ‘core’ go to work; week in, week out.
You can, usually, paper over a crack or two, if one goes AWOL. On the odd occasion and against the right opposition, you can get away with missing two – particularly if their replacements step up to the plate in the manner you hope.
But it helps if they have a similar physical presence to their absent peers.
For me, City’s ‘spineless’ cup defeat this afternoon was exactly that.
Holt’s belated arrival gave them one familiar, focal point in attack. But even he has looked laboured of late; his hamstrings clearly creaking in the absence of any alternative – and his continuing need to carry the club’s attacking ambitions on his shoulders.
Ruddy’s commanding presence in goal has been a huge miss. This week’s transfer activity merely reflects that fact; that Hughton has struggled to replace like-for-like. Or get near to. On a consistent basis.
Bassong – on song – is the rock upon which City’s obdurate defence was built; Tettey and, in fairness, Bradley Johnson make the Norwich midfield a far more physically compelling unit.
Think Hart, Kompany, Toure and Dzeko as the model. With Ruddy, Bassong, Tettey and Holt fit and at the races, Norwich are some way down that road.
Minus all four – or three and a half as Holt finds his way back to both fitness and form – City are a million miles off where they need to be team-wise this spring.
And both supporters and dressing room know that; both are struggling to regain autumn’s level of belief.
And that’s Hughton’s biggest challenge; re-building that spine in mid-season when both patience and time are so tight.
Money, of course, ought to be less so. Which is why – coupled with the mid-week Spurs clash – the next six days are likely to be one the biggest tests yet of Hughton’s managerial life at Carrow Road.
He needs to pull a big performance or a big new player out of the fire.
Ideally, one suspects, both.