City’s last visit to the DW Stadium was notable for many reasons, not least the joie de vivre on display by those donning yellow and green on that sunny Lancashire afternoon. With one whole end of the stadium awash with Yellow Army foot soldiers, a carnival atmosphere prevailed to herald a new era in the history of Norwich City.
Hard to believe it was only 19 months ago.
Much has changed. Along with wholesale changes on and off the pitch – Saturday’s starting line-up will include, at most, 3 of those who started at the DW on 13 August 2011 – this season’s visit will be accompanied by a mind-set far removed from the wide-eyed excitement so evident back then.
Instead of nervous expectation over what may lie ahead, a gritty focus on getting the job done will be the overriding emotion when City walk out into the North-West’s least populated footballing arena. Behind the goal the Yellow Army will still be in situ, but probably less in number; a few brave foot soldiers having fallen by the wayside in the intervening period.
The passion will remain – nothing can dim the Yellow Army in that regard – but the unbridled joy now replaced by a not-so-quiet, determination to roar their heroes over the finishing line. While no-one could ever accuse the travelling City faithful of going through the motions – this particular skill epitomised by Arsenal fans at Carrow Road in October – the wide-eyes have long since been replaced by a steely ones; the undiluted excitement by a touch of exasperation.
Such is the current life of the travelling faithful, last season’s expectancy – borne of the Lambert-inspired gung-ho spirit – now replaced with hope; a hope that just around the corner is that second away win of the season. For flamboyance read pragmatism; for flair read grit.
Yet, if come 6pm on Sunday 19 May the end result is the same, then I doubt very much if there will be a single dissenting voice. If we all wake up on Monday 20th as supporters of a Premier League team then it will be job done; every last ditch tackle, every single bead of sweat, every early morning start, every sojourn to a grubby motorway services… all worth it, for players, management and supporters alike.
A means to an end… the end being that gleaming pot of 2013/14 Premier League gold
But I digress.
So, while Saturday’s trip will conjure up a different set of emotions this time round – for all the reasons above – the biggest challenge that awaits is the ‘place’ in which Roberto Martinez and his men find themselves.
Buoyed by a thrilling home win last time out against Newcastle – albeit in controversial circumstances – and a thumping FA Cup win at Goodison Park to earn a place in the last eight, in Wigan terms, they are riding the crest of a wave. Despite currently occupying 18thplace in the league they’re only a game in hand victory away from hauling themselves out of the relegation zone.
And this is their time. The time of the season when traditionally they click into gear and find the exact number of wins required to haul themselves clear of danger; usually saving their best for the penultimate or final game of the season in a Roy of the Rovers style.
Martinez and co certainly know the routine at the business end of the season and, given that to them it’s an annual occurrence, a relegation dogfight holds no fear; arguably less fear than is currently on show in some parts of Norfolk.
While the noises coming from the North-West suggest that their thrilling FA Cup adventure will have no impact on their league form – I’d expect to hear nothing less – this is, for them, a new facet to contend with. Usually their resolve to survive is unclouded – one dimensional. Surely even the most professional of professionals can’t help but be distracted a little by thoughts of Wembley.
Or maybe I’m just straw clutching.
Either way, everything points to another nail-biter; City’s defensive surety, but lack of goals stacking the odds heavily in that direction.
With Mark Bunn missing – City’s attempt to overturn his red card at Sunderland unsuccessful – Chris Hughton’s decision to bring in (or back) Lee Camp now looks a masterstroke and could potentially throw another spanner in to the fit Ruddy/Bunn debate.
Hughton’s Thursday press conference revealed that also back in the squad is Alex Tettey – his fragile knee now fully rested after a four game absence – although it remains to be seen if Hughton will be willing to break up the Jonny Howson/Bradley Johnson combo after their massive shifts at the Stadium of Light.
Russell Martin – despite withdrawing from Scotland’s trip to Serbia – has recovered sufficiently to travel to Wigan along with other returning ‘internationals’, but the trip to the DW comes a week too early for Anthony Pilkington.
So… let’s keep the throats lubricated, the fingers crossed and trust Hughton’s men to do the business.
On the Ball City…
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