There are always big games in any season. Particularly when a team of Norwich’s ilk is in the Premier League.
Equally, there are always games that – with the passing of time – come to define a player, a time, a manager or a team. Bayern Munich (a) would do all four.
And then, of course, there are games like that on Saturday. Games that – in the fullness of time – might not wear such a rosy glow as that of a Bayern Munich (a), but can just as easily come to define all concerned.
Judgement hour, if you will.
I strongly suspect that the six-point gap between Norwich and Wigan Athletic – albeit with the Latics’ game in hand – will prove enough; as it will for Villa. I also suspect that of those still locked in the bottom half of the table, Newcastle are the biggest crisis club – the one that could yet ‘surprise’ us all.
So, in terms of Premiership survival, I’m not sure this weekend’s return of Paul Lambert will define which division Norwich are in next season.
I do, however, fear that it may come to define how Chris Hughton is viewed as a manager when this weekend’s contest puts managers past and present in such sharp relief. In that context, Villa’s 6-1 hammering of Sunderland on Monday night will have merely accentuated the apparent differences between the two men – Lambert the open cavalier; the risk taker; Hughton the pragmatist; charged with solely keeping Norwich in the top flight this season, efficiency-stroke-effectiveness – or ineffectiveness depending on the volume of liquid in your glass – has been the name of the game.
And not entertainment. Certainly of late. Since Christmas, the Canaries have found themselves having to grind out any point they can; ‘grind’ being the operative word as far as the supporters are concerned. It hasn’t been pretty. There’s not been much swash or buckle to Hughton’s brand of football. Needs have musted.
I might be missing something, but I’m not sure how much swash and buckle anyone offers in the bottom half of the Premier League when the season and the stomachs start to tighten and turn come January.
The pressure to avoid the drop gets ever more intense; the rewards – this summer, in particular, with the new TV deal kicking in – ever more spectacular for those that can scramble their way to safety.
And it is an ugly, nasty scramble.
We’ve been down this road before, but to play open and expansive football – as an individual footballer – in the English Premier League after the end of, say, January takes cojones. And quality. Both of which cost far more money than – invariably – clubs in the bottom half of the Premiership can spend.
And even if they do, there’s no guarantee that the players that lavishly rewarded actually care enough to drop that pass onto that penny from 40 yards. Ask any passing Rangers fan as what, exactly, you get for your money.
It is an old adage, but ever more true given the nature of the English Premier League beast – that the best players are those that play with ‘No fear!’; those that will open out their bodies and look to stroke a 40-yard pass – in the back end of February.
Instead, they will turn inside – or back – and try and simply find a fellow yellow shirt by the shortest and quickest means possible; and not – a la Arsenal – then move into positive space to accept the return. They will hold their position – just in case…
These are the differences between good players and the great; between those that came up the hard way via the Football League and those that arrived via La Liga. Or Serie A.
Clearly, there is a case to be made that it is up to the manager to instill the confidence and the conviction in his players to make those decisions – to be positive in their movement and direction right through to the end of the season.
But that, too, depends on the level of mind and player at his disposal; in Hughton’s case the hand that he was dealt with was the one that was left him by Saturday’s returning hero. Certainly in the heart of that midfield where many a finger is pointing for the lack of creative possession and forward thinking, Hughton’s room for manoeuvre numbers and budget-wise hasn’t been huge.
Summer will be the melting pot; when the next great tranche of Premiership cash rolls in – The Wolf fella being the first example of that.
Should Norwich survive, I think Hughton should be allowed the opportunity to play with his new toys; to show what sort of ‘spine’ he can offer to his side with an England keeper at one end, a Dutch international at the other and many a punters ‘Player of the Season’ Sebastien Bassong somewhere in the middle.
Judge the fella on events next autumn, not this weekend.