Throughout our growing travails this season there has been a certain tendency from those who feel qualified and able to comment publicly upon affairs within our national game to occasionally chime in and put us all in our collective place.
These asides – made as a sabbatical from their normal diet of all things Mourinho, Arsenal and the latest goings on at The Etihad – have unsurprisingly, drawn a mixture of anger and disbelief from the vast majority of Norwich City supporters.
Danny Mills set the bitter cat amongst the Canaries a few weeks ago whilst Adrian Durham – unfeasibly and yet very obviously a hired loudmouth for TalkSport – has vented his spleen at all things yellow and green all season from the safety of his London office. Many of his arguments are so bitter and personal that you have to suspect the only reason for them is the green eyed monster of envy that sits, muttering into his ear, from amongst the various chips that adorn his shoulder.
Fortunately for us, although their cries are shrill and strident they can, as can those of the mosquito, eventually go unheard and disregarded as the mostly inconsequential nuisance value that they undoubtedly are.
Bitter and uninformed comments and nit picking I can take. I don’t like it but, very much like an overripe Soufflé, they are there, inflated and full of air-and then, with a tiny prick, are gone again. And we move on.
Except that we now seem to be the victims of a new kind of comment; a new approach and appraisal from those ‘in the know’ as they honour us with a wry observation or two before getting back to the job in hand – whatever that is.
That of putting us in our place. Slapping us down. Observing the lot of Norwich City supporters from afar and deciding that we not only don’t deserve what we have got but should, in addition, be forelock tappingly grateful for it to have ever visited us in the first place.
You may well have seen some of the comments that have gushed forth over the last few days yourself.
“Norwich have the same number of points as Swansea and no-one is tipping them to go down, what are they making so much fuss about?”
“Norwich fans are getting above themselves, listening to them you’d think they reckon they should be in the top six or something”
“They’re a small club that will always struggle in the Premier League, their expectations are totally unrealistic”
“Those Norwich fans that are always complaining should be grateful for what they’ve got”
And so on and so on and so on.
It brings to mind a sketch from one of Harry Enfield’s shows on the BBC few years ago. It’s set in the 1930s and depicts, in period black and white, a group of dinner jacketed men, accompanied by their wives, sat around the dining table discussing the important affairs of the day. Or at least, the men are. It’s called Look, Listen & Take Heed.
I can see the women in the sketch being replaced by Norwich City supporters with the three men all representing either pundits or tired old ex-pros with a mistress to support. The dialogue would go something like this:
Match of the Day. A TV programme about foot-ball that we all enjoy. The pundits are sat astride the sofa engaging in witty banter. And look at the Norwich City supporters. Aren’t they pretty in their yellow and green? Look at the way they sing On The Ball City. They’re delightful. But now the conversation turns to more serious matters.
“I wonder if Chelsea will win the Premier League this season?”
“I think they will. Jose Mourinho has turned them into a very organised side that don’t lose many games. And their big number nine is a good player. I don’t think Manchester City will catch them whilst Arsenal are just too inconsistent”
“Good. Then we’re all agreed. Chelsea will win the Premier League”
But oh dear. What’s this? One of the Norwich City supporters is about to embarrass us all.
“I’d just like to say that I think Chris Hughton should employ a more positive and adventurous attacking game from Norwich City. One that considerably up’s our chances of scoring goals and making chances, and, in turn, gives us the wins and points that could, feasibly, help push the club towards a not unrealistic place in Premier League mid-table.”
The Norwich City supporter has foolishly attempted to join the conversation with a wild and dangerous opinion about the merits and form of his club and their chances of staying in the Premier League. What utter drivel. See how Danny Mills looks at him with utter contempt.
“Norwich City: you’re going down.”
Norwich City supporters-know your limits.
Now let’s see the proper way.
“Good. Then we’re all agreed. Chelsea will win the Premier League.”
“Oh. We wouldn’t know anything about wanting to do well or prospering in the Premier League I’m afraid. But I do love Delia Smith, Chrissie Hughton and fluffy yellow little Canaries.”
Norwich City supporters. Know your limits. In attitude be devoid of ambition and hope. And let your simple Norfolk character shine through.
Because that’s about it, isn’t it? We really aren’t expected to want or expect much else other than a place at the foot of the Premier League table, gathering crumbs and being grateful for being there in the first place.
For people with little or no connection with Norwich City, much less any knowledge about the club or its history, these repeated utterances of how we should be ‘grateful for what you’ve got’ and be willing to accept nothing other than a long and morale sapping battle against relegation every season comes across as somewhat patronising to say the least.
Are clubs such as ourselves expected to be completely devoid of ambition and, more to the point, are we, the supporters, meant to accept our grim lot as, at best, just making up the numbers?
I touched on this in a piece I wrote for this over a year ago – so nothing has changed. How little old Norwich were everyone’s favourite, favourite that is, providing that we conformed to type, that we entertained, were colourful, friendly, a little naive and able to live up to our simple country ways. The opposition came, they saw, they got three points at Carrow Road. Good old Norwich, lovely day out, Delia’s lovely, Chris Hughton’s lovely, the Morrisons near the ground is ever so convenient. We’re like a footballing Centre Parcs. If we were a person from history we’d be the late Queen Mother.
And we’re meant to sit in our cages and accept that rather than rattle them a little when we think we could, we should, be doing better than we are at the moment?
And when we doth protest it’s said that we doth protest too much?
I don’t agree.
Football is, of course, purely and utterly subjective. This means that, when someone offers an opinion on something relating to the game – a team, a player, a manager or any given situation or issue – it is, more often than not, something which is neither right or wrong but, rather, their own views on that situation.
So this is mine: I’m not saying it’s the right one, the majority one or the most sensible and realistic one. But it’s what I’ve got and I’ll stand by it, despite those who would cast me and my fellow Norwich supporters down for daring to expect, no, demand more from our club and players.
We are underachieving at the moment.
We have, perhaps, with the exception of the one which Dave Stringer put together that peaked in the 1988/89 season, as good, capable and skilful a squad of players as we have enjoyed in the club’s history.
Remember that season? Fourth place in the First Division plus an appearance in the FA Cup semi-final. Players of the calibre of Mark Bowen, Ian Butterworth, Ian Crook, Ian Culverhouse, Robert Fleck, Dale Gordon, Bryan Gunn, Andy Linighan, Mike Phelan and Andy Townsend, all operating at pretty much the peak of their footballing powers?
(And here’s a question, how many of that ten, were they playing and available at that standard today, do you think would merit a regular starting place in our next game?)
It was a season with many high spots. We were top of the table for three months – indeed, had it not been for a poor late run of league games that saw just two wins in our last ten matches, we might, have come very close to winning the damned thing. We were even being offered good odds on doing a League and Cup double right up to mid-April.
Remember losing at home to non-league Luton Town last season? We had a similar tie back then. Home to Sutton United, conquerors of our top flight peers Coventry City in the last round; they of future Canary David Phillips plus Cyrille Regis, David Speedie and Steve Ogrizovic. Awkward? Hardly. We beat them 8-0 and it could have been double that.
And our away record in the league that season? How about this. In our first eleven league games played away from Carrow Road that season, we won eight of them, drew two and lost just the one. I remember being at the game at QPR, one which we looked set to win, via the craziest of multi-deflected goals from Alan Taylor until, damn the man to hell, Mark Falco equalised near the death meaning we remained in second place in the table with 38 points. Yep, it was 2 January 1989, we were second in the table, had 38 points and away wins to boast at, amongst others, Liverpool, Newcastle United and Manchester United.
And my response that late draw and those terrible consequences was to do what? Throw my programme to the floor in disgust and stalk out and away from West London loudly vowing that I was never going to waste another day on the useless so-and-so’s.
But has football changed that much?
I’ve worked in corporate environments where one of the favourite buzz phrases was “no question is a stupid question”. But maybe an exception has to be made for anyone asking if football has changed much in the last quarter of a century or so?
The game, of course, hasn’t changed much at all. Teams can now name seven substitutes rather than two whilst there have been other shifts in the way it is played – banning a goalkeeper from picking up a backpass for example. However, in reality, the game itself has not changed that much. The basic premise is still eleven vs eleven on the pitch with the aim of getting more goals than your opponent. Was, is, will forever be.
Ah, but people will argue back. The game is so much quicker now and the players so much fitter.
Well I’d have to contest that one. Let’s start with the latter, that today’s players are fitter than their peers from 25 years ago.
During the 1988/89 season, in a campaign that, for Norwich, lasted for 38 league games plus an extra nine in the two cup competitions, Dave Stringer called on a total of just 18 different players, eight of which started more than 30 league games.
Chris Hughton can use fourteen different players in just one game now for goodness sake! And, up to and including Saturday’s game at Southampton, he had used a total of 27 different players for the 35 league and cup games played, at the time of writing, this season. One of the reasons we’ve used so many of course has been the number of injuries to key players throughout the season – we’ve missed, or are missing, for assorted lengths of time this campaign the likes of Elliott Bennett, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Michael Turner, Johnny Howson, Leroy Fer, Anthony Pilkington, Jonas Gutierrez and Alex Tettey. Significant losses – you can be sure that, had Stringers 88/89 side missed their equivalents for such a long period of time and matches, there is probably no way they would have had the season they had.
But they didn’t. Is that because the players back then were less fit? Or, critically, less susceptible to injury. And, if, so then why?
Admittedly it’s not core and absolute evidence that the players back then were fitter, stronger, less susceptible to injury. But it’s fairly compelling stuff none the less.
You could go onto to compare lots of other perceived ways in which today’s game compares with that of Stringer’s time as manager.
It’s quicker now for example, more pace. No, don’t accept that either. Look at players like Des Walker, Chris Waddle, Lee Sharpe, Danny Wallace, Tony Cottee and John Barnes – pace in abundance bar none. In Dale Gordon we weren’t particularly short of it either. Plus there was Darren Eadie to come.
OK, so how about pressure and expectation? It is so much greater now, on both clubs and individuals, than it ever was at the end of the 1980s.
Again, an argument that can’t be proved conclusively. The pressure and expectation on Tottenham Hotspur to deliver was so acute that they broke their transfer record twice in a month in bringing in new players at the start of the season. Manchester United broke their own club record, Everton broke the UK transfer record only for Liverpool to break it again shortly afterwards. “Buying” a league title isn’t a recent footballing phenomenon. It didn’t all start with Chelsea and Roman Abramovich.
If all that was to happen in the opening few weeks of next season, as it all did in the opening ones of that 1988/89 campaign, the redtops would be falling over themselves in excitement with pie charts, graphs and sensational headlines celebrating just how much money had been spent and how the managers of those clubs would be expected to deliver silverware – or else.
So not much has changed there either.
Of course, now we have touched on the delicate matter of money, the very obvious and most quoted difference in the game, not that ancient and modern, comes into play. The fact there is so much money in the game now and that it is, rapidly and with no end in sight, causing the gap between the haves and the have-nots to widen so much that it would now be considered impossible for a club like Norwich to even have a hope of qualifying for the Champions League, never mind, as we surely did in 1989, have a chance of winning the league title.
Because I think that gap has always been there. Right from the beginnings of the game, then, as now, created and perpetuated because of the vast disparity in footballs finances and relative incomes.
People point to the fact that the last ten Premier League titles have been won by one of just four different clubs.
Yet how about the last ten years of the old Football League Championship, played from 1983 to 1992? Yep, just four different winners in that decade as well. And guess what? In the first ten years of that Football League Championship, played between 1893 and 1902, there were also only four different winners of the title.
So there have always been the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the perceived elite and the rest. The football world was shaken to its core in 1905 when Sunderland paid Middlesbrough £1,000 for Alf Common. Questions were asked in Parliament and people were, genuinely, worried, that football had sold its soul to money.
Much as people did when Tottenham lured £85million out of Real Madrid for Gareth Bale.
But the game survived in 1905 and it will today. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In every aspect of the game that we love. It’s all relative.
Which is why I don’t think it is unreasonable for us, as Norwich City supporters, to expect a little more from our team, this and every season. Because, whilst what we are up against is as near to insurmountable a challenge as it could ever be, it’s no different to the one faced by The Wednesday back in 1903. They only turned professional in 1887 after most of their players threatened to leave for other clubs. In 1890 they finished bottom of the Alliance League, then the equivalent to the Conference today. Less than ten years later, they were kicked out of their ground because the local railway wanted to construct a new track right through it. As a consequence, they nearly went out of business. Homeless, player less and as good as hopeless.
Yet in 1903 they won the Football League title. And then, to prove it wasn’t a fluke, they did it all over again the following season, breaking the monopoly that Sunderland and Aston Villa, winners of eight of the first ten league titles between them had on the game.
So, for Sunderland and Aston Villa then, read Manchester United and Chelsea now?
And for The Wednesday then, read Norwich City now?
Or any one of around fifteen or so Premier League clubs, most of which start each and every season with the prime and exclusive goal of securing enough points via a tense, torrid and difficult season that will see runs of defeats, the occasional thrashing, and, more often than not supporter discontent and talk of lost dressing rooms. All painfully witnessed and experienced, briefly celebrated, just so they can start the following season with the prime and exclusive goal of securing enough points via a tense, torrid and difficult season that will see runs of defeats, the occasional thrashing, and, more often than supporter discontent and talk of lost dressing rooms all over again – and again and again and again.
Surely, as in life, you have to set your sets higher and hope, yearn, feel the urge and drive to achieve more?
One of my favourite quotes comes from the famous twentieth century artist Maurits Escher in which he states that, “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”
It resonates well with me when I consider the challenges that Norwich City will inevitably face in each and every season that we are a Premier League club. Because, by attempting to survive and prosper in what seem to be impossible odds we are, by that very act, achieving the near impossible ourselves in surviving to give it another go the following season.
And, despite all of that, despite the fact that this season has been, for me, as uncomfortable and un-enjoyable a one as I can ever remember (one that, sadly now seems to be marked by conflict between supporters of the same club), I fervently still hope that we will be there to do it all again from next August.
But when we ask, as we have been this season, for more than scratching a living, are we, as the fans of other clubs and pundits alike seem to suggest, being unreasonable? Should we be content, should we accept that is the very limit of our ambitions and that to yearn for more is not only unreasonable and unrealistic but is also farming out responsibilities and pressures to our manager and coaching staff that, with the best will in the world, is likely beyond the clubs capabilities?
Perceived wisdom suggests that yes, this season and seasons like it are our lot and we should sit back, shut up and enjoy the ride.
Yet evidence from the past further suggests that this need not be the perceived wisdom and there is no reason at all to think that we cannot achieve more. Maybe that won’t be winning the Premier League title anytime soon. But there is no reason to suggest that we can’t establish ourselves as one of the top ten-twelve clubs in the Premier League on a constant basis. Because I don’t think that is beyond us. And, what’s more, if we or anyone at the club feels that it is, then what would be the point of continuing? You might as well turn all the lights out and go home.
Never mind the detractors. We can prevail and we can advance. And we should never be ashamed to wish for that or feel bullied into thinking such thoughts are unreasonable and unrealistic.