The recent and fairly common angst amongst many Norwich supporters at the moment is that it is not the fact that we are on a poor run of form and losing rather too many games for comfort that is the issue at hand.
But that it is the manner in which those games are approached
Accusations abound about lack of ambition, of giving – and showing – too much respect for the opposition and of that seemingly, in some cases, having accepted defeat as being inevitable even prior to kick off, such was the strength and stature of the opposition.
The reporter from the Daily Telegraph who attended our game at Goodison at the weekend seemed to sum it all up rather well by declaring that, “…the hosts were utterly dominant; the visitors utterly grim. Everton attacked at will. Norwich let them.”
Now, in fairness, I don’t think for one moment either manager or players arrived at the game on Saturday expecting to lose. Far from it. But I do think they had another thought upper and foremost in their mind. One that said: “Don’t lose.”
Hence that perceived unambitious and negative approach from the Canaries in that and so many other games this season.
Now, I’ve banged on about this before I know, but offer no apology for mentioning it again.
That is, the sea change in English football of going into a game with a game plan that is based in ensuring that you don’t lose that match rather than you go out there with the intent to win it.
Subtle. But not uncommon and by no means unique to us or as a philosophy of the present management team. Does anyone remember that strident, passionate cry of Paul Lamberts towards the end of a game at Carrow Road during our first season in the Premier League – so strong and so mighty and emphatic in delivery, it rang around the ground and was even picked up by the BBC Radio Norfolk microphones at the time.
“Don’t f*****g lose”.
Lambert didn’t like losing football matches anymore than Chris Hughton does. They just seem to have a slightly different approach to how they go about ensuring it doesn’t happen.
Yet they, along with around eight to ten other Premier League managers, all have one thing in common and one overriding reason for not wanting to lose any game that they play in.
And it isn’t for the sake of the football club they manage, but for the business that the football club is part of. Because if winning is for the greater good and glory of the football club then losing is to the detriment of the business.
Now it’s not big, clever or far sighted for anyone to admit these days that football is no longer a ‘mere’ sport. It is a business; we all know that now, even if we might not like it. A massive one at that where monetary figures are now regularly measured in billions rather than millions and where club owners and chief executives have become almost as well known and, in some cases, as venerated as the players at the clubs they own and run.
Does, or did, the owner of Cardiff City ever entertain thoughts for example, that his name might be chanted with the sort of fervour and love given to his team and players on a matchday? It wouldn’t surprise anyone; especially given the fact that owners like Vincent Tan appear to think their riches can buy them anything – including love and adoration.
But they also seem to believe that, given the fact that football is a business these days, that they can make and implement decisions that are made purely and exclusively for business rather than footballing reasons. And when those policies are announced and implemented, they are far removed from football and the whole reason (or so we all thought) for supporting our clubs, and loving the game seems to have been completely and utterly disregarded.
Cardiff City changing their badge for example. And the colour of their shirts. For reasons that will best serve the club in the – and this is the exact quote the clubs spokesman used – “international markets”.
Financial markets. The very same reasons that the manager of Hull City wants to change the name of his club to Hull Tigers.
And so on and so forth. Business first, football second. Owners wishes paramount, desires of a clubs support secondary and subject to dismissal. After all, didn’t the owner of Hull City declare that, when the clubs support objected to his plans for their name and identity declare that, “…they can all go to hell.”
Times have changed. We, the supporters, always used to tell ourselves that we were the most important part of any club, the core of its existence, the loyal and mostly unquestioning army that gave it life. We were, after all, with our attendance every week, “paying the players wages”. Not in the Premier League we don’t. In fact, as far as the afore mentioned gentleman on Humberside is concerned, we are an irrelevance, a nuisance, a barrier to his achieving his economic and business related ambitions with his club and he could quite easily do without them.
And, in all likelihood, the club probably could.
It was Terry Venables who once said that the game would change to such an extent in the future that clubs would end up paying supporters to attend games in order to generate an atmosphere for the worlds TV cameras. Dismissed at the time, it doesn’t seem such a ludicrous thought today, especially with both the footballing authorities as well as many clubs subsidising ticket and travel prices as well as providing various incentive schemes in order to encourage attendance. The thin end of the wedge? Maybe. Maybe not. Time will tell.
It has already been noted by many that the attendances at many of the Canaries away games seems to be dwindling slightly, either that or the enthusiasm is falling away. One poster on the Wrath of the Barclay messageboard described going to an away game this week as, “…a good day out interrupted by an un-enjoyable ninety minutes in the middle.”
The ever-present black humour of Canary fans. Yet telling. There is an argument, of course, that people are being put off going to games because of the ever increasing costs involved in doing so. And that will always be a factor. But for everyone? I don’t think so.
Historically, people have always found the time and money to go to the football. You just do.
You find the money somehow even if it means missing out on other things. Was, is and forever will be.
Many of those who are now electing not to go must be making that decision for another reason and that is because, as summed up in the above quote, they simply aren’t enjoying the end product anymore.
Because maintaining the current business model at Carrow Road means staying in the Premier League at all costs and by whatever means are deemed necessary. We all witnessed and experienced those means last season just as we are again this season.
Don’t lose. Because if you don’t lose then you’ll at least get a point. And if you manage to achieve not losing 38 times that means 38 points – and, in all likelihood, another season in which we can try to do it all over again.
That’s hugely simplistic I know. Yet, to me, it seems to be the very essence of the matter, to preserve the business model, the income, the status of the business come what may. And if the football suffers as an end result then that is an unfortunate consequence. Because relegation would be a far, far more unfortunate consequence.
Thus business first, football second and entertainment a grim and struggling third.
We’ve known entertainment at Carrow Road. Indeed, I’ve named the names, the matches and the incidents on these very pages during the last year or so. And people respond, sharing the moments, the bits of magic; the time when football was theatre and we loved it. Only a fortnight ago, I remembered us losing a memorable game at Coventry City 5-4 and how, in the manner of our defeat, we would have loved our club, its players and the then manager John Bond all the more for the daring and the glorious nature of our defeat.
Bond could have appeared on that pitch at full time, dressed in the garb of Maximus Decimus Meridius and asked of us, “…are you not entertained?”.
The answer would have been a resounding yes. And that was important. Because that was what football was all about. But times and priorities have changed – never more aptly than in the reading of a phrase that formed the foundation of a piece about the game that I read a few days ago. I’ll repeat it below but should warn those who still nurture an old fashioned, even romantic notion about football that they should maybe look away now lest they find it offensive.
‘Football is not part of the entertainment business’.
Really? I beg to differ. Indeed, if football and business have to be, in any way, shape or form linked then that is the one word that should be the glue that binds them together.
Yet how often can you truly say that you have watched Norwich City this season and been entertained?
There will have been moments when that has been the case of course. But, more often than not, it’s often been frustrating, occasionally turgid stuff with results and performances that have garnished reactions that have ranged from sheer frustration to undiluted rage – much of it directed at Chris Hughton.
Yet is that really fair? Is it down to him and him alone – or is it because of the way the game has changed and the rules and regulations that he and those other eight to ten Premier League managers now have to find themselves abiding?
Remember, he isn’t the manager of a football team, he’s one of a series of managers that are responsible for the footballing side of – and there’s that word again – the business.
Every other department in the business relies upon him to fulfil his mandate, that is, by whatever means possible, to keep us in, as he would refer to it, “this Barclays Premier League”.
Sales. Marketing. Media. The Academy. Accounts and Finance. Their very existence and continued survival depends on Chris Hughton delivering, year after year, Premier League football and the rich financial rewards that it brings to the business. Is there any wonder, therefore, that the poor bloke sends out his teams with a mantra and game plan that involves not winning but not losing?
It’s not only his job that depends on it, it’s those of a whole load of other people as well – throughout the, here we go again, business.
Hardly the foundation for a manager to want to put the football first, to let the players express themselves and entertain the fans just as John Bond did.
It didn’t matter so much then. Relegation that is. It wasn’t desirable of course, but then it wasn’t terminal either. It wouldn’t be this season either, thanks to the parachute payments that relegated clubs receive from the Premier League. And yet, with an immediate return by no means guaranteed, or even one at all when you bear in mind that, of the 39 clubs relegated from the Premier League since the turn of the century, 19 have never returned. Of the rest, nine came back at the first attempt but, of the other 11, it took on average five years, and five changes of manager, to regain top-flight status.
So even if David McNally does have a plan in mind for the club if the worse was to happen this season, the fact that it probably revolves around an immediate return to the Premier League doesn’t mean that we will – history is very much against us in that regard. In fact, what if we never do?
Clubs perceived as being just as big, and just as full of promise and potential as Norwich continue to struggle to do so, Derby County and Nottingham Forest being two of them. Indeed, Nottingham Forest, League Champions in 1978 and European Cup winners in the two seasons that followed that are now ‘enjoying’ their fifteenth consecutive season outside of the Premier League. Yet I bet they thought they’d come straight back up as well.
So yes, for us, if we were to be relegated this season, it might not be an immediate disaster.
Yet if we were to struggle to retain our place at footballs top table, I would – given that there does not seem to be a surplus of benevolent billionaires looking to take over our club at the moment – warrant that, in three, four, five years time we could once again be on the edge of the financial precipice.
No wonder the club hierarchy will have decreed that relegation is not an option.
And no wonder the philosophy on the pitch has changed from winning to not losing – with entertainment the biggest and most obvious victim.
But is that down to Chris Hughton alone? Or is it a sad but inevitable part of a bigger picture? I think it’s the latter.
And you never know, our manager might just hate it as much as we all do.