CHELSEA’S captain was in tears at the finish, a reminder that, for all their athleticism and attitude, we had been watching youngsters still in their teens.
But there were few home fans left to give Lewis Baker consoling cheers. There hadn’t been many to start with and most started streaming out of Stamford Bridge as soon as it became clear that the London club’s expensively assembled and extravagantly rewarded under-18s had suffered a spirit-crushing defeat.
So it was us, the 3,000 Yellow Army foot soldiers, who applauded Chelsea before giving our own young Youth Cup winners the roaring acclaim they will remember when they are as old as me.
As a Facebook friend of mine posted, there are times as a Canaries fan when you feel you are part of something special. This week has brought those times back with two of the most remarkable days in the history of the great club from the fine city.
And the fans played a crucial role. Never listen to those at any other club who say their following is special or exceptionally passionate. It is us who wear the badge with the yellow bird who have set new standards of support.
How could Chelsea fans stomp out on their kids? How could they become so sated by success, so flush with a sense of entitlement that they wouldn’t stay to the finish and applaud teenagers?
It will never be like that at Norwich. We remember what failure feels like, so when success comes, boy, it feels so good. But we can’t take it for granted.
And the romp against West Brom was such a life-enhancing day precisely because it came after a week of gnawing fear. The dreadful defeat against Villa really did fill us with dread.
Yet, despite what happened against Villa, an extraordinary number of us bought our Youth Final tickets anyway, ready to give the boys our best no matter how dejected we might be by then. We’d planned this weekend’s trip to Manchester City, although we knew it might be a wake. And we flooded into Carrow Road last Sunday ready to shout ourselves stupid.
In his programme notes for that last home game of the season, our manager praised the fact that Carrow Road is always full and we frequently take our full allocation to away games. He knows that such sustained, constant support is a rarity, especially at our end of the table.
Because of the tricks chief executive David McNally has conjured with extra seats, City’s average attendance this season (26,672) is actually more than the declared capacity. So, in theory, we’ve sold, on average 102.4 per cent of our tickets!
Wigan have managed only 76.2 per cent at a ground which holds less than ours. And I often see their away mini-bus on my way to and from games for my job. Aston Villa – who believe they are so much bigger than us – achieved only 82.3 per cent. Sunderland and Everton have both been less than 90 per cent full on average.
I am still on Fulham’s data base after buying tickets for that match we don’t talk about in 2005. So I receive their emails imploring me to attend matches which ought not to require such desperate marketing.
The experience is utterly different for Norwich fans. On the day the West Brom tickets went on sale to City’s Super Members I forgot until half-way through the morning. So my wife and I ended up sitting in separate rows with impaired views in the River End/Main Stand corner.
Of course City have their share of message board miserablists and phone-in Jonahs. At the first sign of difficulty they need to blame someone. When the going gets tough, they get going with conspiracy theories. But we all show our hurt in different ways and the important thing is that, at Carrow Road on Sunday and at Stamford Bridge the next night, it was the evident desire of supporters which stiffened sinews on the pitch and encouraged an intensity of effort.
For all my determined positivity, I too had feared the worst after the Villa defeat. Until then I honestly believed we would crawl over the line, a point at a time. But it was a hammer blow to lose to Paul Lambert – and Gabby Agbonlahor’s goals emphasised what Norwich have lacked for nine months: pace and top quality in attack.
Has Chris Hughton been too negative? Well, remember that he doesn’t actually do the recruitment. He agrees the transfer targets, but it wasn’t he who failed to sign the striker we needed in August or January.
I’m not blaming negotiator-in-chief McNally, either. I know how tiny the budget was for a signing and his wages and I am not surprised we didn’t land anyone significant.
So I believe Hughton looked at what we’d got and decided that the best deployment of our limited resources would be based on solidity in defence, with Wes – sometimes our only creative passer – playing off a lone striker. If we’d played with two up top, we wouldn’t have been good enough to make any more impact. But we would have been profoundly more vulnerable.
The situation was summed up for me at Wigan – in my view the worst performance of the season. Folk strove to get up and support the lone striker. So we were never short of bodies in attack. But we were woefully short of quality.
Kei Kamara, bless him, just wasn’t used to having to work Premier League defenders. So he waited for crosses which never reached him because his opponents didn’t co-operate by standing still.
Eventually Holty came on. But we never looked like scoring.
Our captain has been a disappointment. I say that as someone whose love for him is now immortalised on a brick at Carrow Road. But you only had to see him back at his immense best against the Albion to understand what has been going on.
A solitary striker must run the channels. The important word there is “run”. Our captain did a lot of it during the season, but it is not what he is best at and it brought such meagre rewards this campaign that, psychologically and physically, he was running on empty a lot of the time.
Yet, when we needed him most, there he was on Sunday, pulling wide and delivering the sort of cross he would like to receive so that, eventually, Snoddy plundered the critical first goal. It was an emphatic finish which was considerably more difficult than the Scot made it look, by the way.
Wes’s part in that first goal had a lesson in it as well. He chased the knock-down and forced a block from goalkeeper Foster. Most of Wes’s work this season has been on the edge of the box and he has seldom been the first or second responder when the ball was actually in the box.
Pilks was doing something different on Sunday as well. He left his flank a lot to arrive late but effectively in central positions. He hasn’t done that much since that header against Manchester United.
And Howson was a revelation, wasn’t he? He proved that, with a central midfielder who passes forward, carries the ball forward or gets forward in support, the system Hughton prefered isn’t negative at all.
I think Johnny H epitomised what happened this campaign. In the second season, with the promotion momentum no longer providing impetus, a lot of players found the Premier League an unforgiving place. Some of them learned and grew. Eventually.
I believe as well that the injury to John Ruddy was a huge factor in the grim difficulties after the turn of the year. In 1995 it was an injury to Bryan Gunn which precipitated relegation. This time, it was a damn good job that Hughton identified the need for Bunn and Camp, but Ruddy is a giant in stature and presence. Any team would miss him. We did, certainly.
So do not underestimate the scale of the Hughton’s achievement in fulfilling his brief – nor the enormous significance to the club we care about.
Our manager was statesmanlike after the victory. He permitted himself a few quiet smiles, but he spoke of his pride in making other people happy, because “there are a lot of people at this club who deserve to be in the Premier League”. Then he spoke about his family, and they stress they have suffered when the battle for survival was at its most attritional.
He is a thoroughly decent chap. And sometimes, the good guys do win.
Had we gone down, it would have been a big test for chairman Alan Bowkett, who had experienced only success in his three previous seasons. It would also have pitched us back into a Championship stocked full of ex-Premier League sides. We know the second tier is formidably difficult to leave. Well, it’s hard to get out of it at the right end.
Now though, we approach the future debt-free and ready to share unprecedented television payments. Every club in the Premier League will get their share as well, but we should be able to devote a much bigger proportion of income into the playing budget from here on in.
There will be other seasons when we are in peril, though. If it can happen to Newcastle and Sunderland, it will definitely happen to us.
But Charlton, with whom we were relegated to League One four short years ago this month, are still striving to make an impact in the Championship. Stockport, who were one place above us on the night Lambert watched us lose at Brentford, will start next season with part-time players in the Blue Square Bet North.
But the Yellow Army will march into the top grounds in the top division.
We are Premier League.
We all had to leave early to pack for Amsterdam.
Peter Muchlinski says
Houghton has done an excellent job.He has addressed our shortcomings in defence and has worked to get the best out of the players at his disposal.The current squad is after all pretty ordinary,lacking in quality in key areas,and Houghton’s achievements have to be seen in relation to this.Goodness knows what emotional turmoil he has been through of late but I’m convinced he will do a great deal to improve the team to ensure that the end of next season will be a very different emotional time for him and,incredibly importantly ,for us!!
Steven Clarke says
I think it is about time that Houghton got the credit he is due, this was always going to be a difficult season. I don’t think the man with those big shoes that he filled would have achieved anymore with the same squad, indeed I believe Mr L’s squad this year may have not had the solidity Houghton found in Bassong and Co.
Norwich City Fans are the best but perhaps it is about time us fans found a way to show some real appreciation to Delia and Micheal, without whom we may not even have a club!!
Douglas Millar says
Absolutely right about missing Ruddy. City were playing well at WBA – one up and assured when just before half time Bunn was blocked by one of their strikers who made no attempt to play the ball. Bunn pushed the ball onto the crossbar and the ball was headed in. That was when the unbeaten run eded and it was followed by some very difficult fixtures. If Ruddy had been there he would not have been so easily bullied.
Fair play to Bunn he did well but does not have the presence of Ruddy. Gradually the season unravelled until we became desperate. The win against WBA represented poetic justice for NCFC and its emphatic nature will send the players into the close season in good heart. It may also lead to a finish two or three places above 17th which will also boost the transfer kitty.
Coupled with last night’s remarkable win the team should go into next season on the up. Lets hope for a faster start than this (and last) season. I’m fed up with losing to Fulham especially as I live across the river and see so many Fulham fans. We may yet finish above them. which will certainly be a great achievement given what happened there in August. OTBC!
James Murphy says
I second the remarks about Delia and Michael. Some often forget that without them throwing their savings into what many would consider a money pit (any football club) we could well have been relegated and bankrupt.
I only hope that as the club is now debt free that they get their dues both financially (the money they loaned)and with the ever lasting respect from the fans.
Great article btw – sometimes to good guys do win and Houghton is a credit to the club. I couldn’t stand someone with the tantrums and damn rudeness of say a recently retired “Sir”.
The Yellow Shark says
Peter, James, Steven (et al), perhaps the most immediate way of giving Mr Hughton some of the overdue credit you speak of is taking the time to learn to spell his name correctly. After all it’s just good manners after all this time.
Russell S. says
The knives have been out for Chris Hughton (not Houghton!) for a few months and probably will still be for some who seem to think we should appoint an ‘exotic’ foreign coach e.g. di Matteo who would have us playing tiki-taka.
The latter did take Chelsea to the CL victory but we do not and will never have players of the calibre that the top 4-5 can afford.
We’ve got a group of honest, hard-working boys who have now been forged in the PL for 1-2 years. We can only get stronger next year and hopefully Hughton will realise now that the ‘busparking’ tactics deployed at Wigan and Stoke is not to be repeated.
Ben Beaugeard says
Great article Mick, & a fair summary of the season. Hoots deserves credit for completing the job he was employed to do. Yes in parts in not been pretty, but there has been to many calling for him to be sacked of late who have missed the bigger picture. He is well respected in Football & knows only too well that we have over achieved with the squad we’ve got. After all before we kicked a ball in August we were favourites for relegation. He knows we need to improve the quality levels of the squad, so I expect to see quite a few changes this summer as he builds around the exciting signing of RVW. Finally what a magnificent achievement by the Youth Team. The futures bright, the futures Yellow!
I know it’s been said, but HUGHTON! I mean really, is it so hard?
Looking forward to next season…
Excellent article touching on the key points which are too often overlooked by the “message board miserablists and phone-in Jonahs” who can only see their own personal agendas, and who, of course, know far more about football than Chris Hughton. Full credit to both NCFC teams over the last two days for their inspiring performances! OTBC!
Steven Clarke says
Apologies, of course I do know how to spell Hughton. I just wanted to make the point about Delia and Micheal and forgot to check before I submitted. Believe me I’m a fan of our manager and have spent the last few months defending him to a lot of River End moaners.
Mick Dennis says
I saw Michael afterwards and made a point of thanking him “for helping make sure these great adventures go on”. As always, he genuinely didn’t think he’d done anything. He and Delia see it as a duty. They were asked, in a time of dire need, to stump up money, so they did. And now they think that all they have done and do is just part of the gig — like having to help your kids without ever considering not, because that’s what you signed up to in the first place. I have seen them in the grim times and the hurt in their eyes is awful. I hope they have a blissful summer until the adventure starts again.
Andrew Goram says
I never do this – write to message boards. But as a City fan for some 45 years, boy what a week. And where did that 4-0 come from. But Oh! wasn’t it such a good feeling afterwards after my brain went into melt-down during the week attempting to get a grip on the what-ifs, buts and maybes of staying up or not. Since I was put in touch with this website, I have always enjoyed the balanced, biased yes, but balanced views expressed and I have always looked forward to your input Mick. I am so glad for Chris Hughton that eh got the job done. I remember reading your article when he was appointed when you said to your Birmingham colleague that NCFC would look after him as he deserves. Well he has delivered for us and I hope he does for many years to come. He is a credit to himself, his players, us the fans, and is a fine recruit to NCFC. I may never meet him, but I have utter respect for him as if I do know him. Looking forward to the summer reccuiting campaign and start of nest season already.
Thank you, Mick, and all contributors for a great website.
Lovely end of term report Mick. May I add my thanks to all involved in the website. A difficult season has been made more bearable by being able to escape from message-board moaners and turn to the reasoned views on these pages. The decency, intelligence and trustworthiness of our manager has been rewarded. I too am delighted for Delia and Michael. In Neil Adams we clearly have a rising star, with the skill he showed as a player, on air and in print being turned into interesting tactical awareness. Lets hope he is allowed to add his opinions to the management group – it could be the start of NCFC’s own boot-room legacy.
Bucks Canary says
Great article, Mick – and what fantastic responses: all unanimous, and understanding what a great job Hughton has done, and how the club and the supporters owe the most enormous debt of gratitude to Michael and Delia, who are, simply GOOD people. Still v. nervous about next season, but, at least – and at last – there IS a next season!