The dreaded international break has reared its ugly head again.
Roy’s boys may well have picked up two wins on the road (ferry or train more sensibly) to France 2016 but it’s the trip to Craven Cottage on Saturday that is uppermost in the thoughts of most Canary fans.
Will Fulham get the better of our boys (again)?
Being a pessimist – probably, with Ross McCormack playing his first blinder of the season.
But maybe this time things will be different. Why? Well, according to many fans, Neil Adams has assembled what is arguably the best squad that we’ve ever had – certainly for a second tier campaign.
This is our 10th season at this level since 2000/01 and the first time we’ve been top at this point – after eleven games. We had more points in 2002/03 (24pts, 3rd place) but only finished 8th. Promotion came in 2003/04 and 2010/11.
I hereby offer the case for season 2003/04 – under the guidance of Nigel Worthington – as being the closest rival to the present one.
The comparison is merited firstly by the spooky fact that after 11 games of that season, we had exactly the same record as this (6 wins, 3 draws and 2 defeats). Then however 21 points was only good enough for 6th place with West Brom clear at the top with 25.
Arguably we should have 25 under our belts right now – curse that dodgy home form which compares poorly with the 5 straight wins of 2003.
We’d scored three fewer goals and conceded two more back then but still the statistical similarity is remarkable. On the October 4, 2003 (game 11) we drew 1-1 with Wigan with Iwan Roberts getting a second- half equaliser.
Apart from that game being played in front of just 9,500 brave souls in Wigan, ‘striking’ similarities exist with events of the October 4, 2014 (Rotherham at home).
One more coincidence: by league game 11 of 2003, we had already been dumped out of the League Cup (1-0) by lower league opposition – Northampton. Sound familiar?
How about a closer analysis of the respective teams which played those Wigan and Rotherham games to get a feel for which might have been the better outfit? Let’s assume 4-4-2 in both cases to make comparison easier:
2003/04: Wigan (away)
Green; Edworthy, Fleming, Mackay, Drury; Huckerby, Mulryne, Holt, Francis; McVeigh, Roberts. Subs: Rivers, Henderson, Lewis, Shackell and Easton.
2014/15: Rotherham (home)
Ruddy; Martin, Hooiveld, Turner, Olsson; Redmond, Johnson, Howson, Hoolahan; Jerome, Grabban. Subs: Murphy, Lafferty, Rudd, Whittaker, Tettey, O’Neil and Odjidja.
Point 1 – Keeper: Very close contest based on Rob Green’s form at that stage of his career (before most of the horrendous incidents which have blighted him since) and the similar number of appearances for the two of them. Maybe John Ruddy just gets the nod as Green wouldn’t play for England for another couple of years. Verdict: 1-0 to 2014/15
Point 2 – Defence: Although Marc Edworthy was a ‘fresher’ that season, the near combined 500 matches of the other three at the time has to give that back-four the nod over the current one. In particular, the Fleming-Mackay pairing is just about the best one since Watson and Bruce. Verdict: 1 – 1
Point 3 – Midfield: Again it’s a close one. Gary Holt, in my opinion, stands out in the middle over Bradley Johnson. Phil Mulryne over Jonny Howson for me while the Wes/Redmond combination pips it (it was Darren Huckerby’s first season ). So, that’s a score draw or half-point each. Verdict: 1.5 – 1.5
Point 4 – Strikers: No contest. As exciting and promising Cameron Jerome and Lewis Grabban have been, and promise to be, they are both freshers. The McVeigh-Roberts combination (approximately 350 appearances at that time) has to be a clear winner. Verdict: 2.5 – 1.5 to 2003/04
Point 4.5 – Subs: 2014 is much stronger looking but only a half mark is up for grabs in this category (Hey, I don’t make the rules – oh wait, yes I do). Verdict 2.5 – 2 to 2003/04
So, according to my arbitrary marking system, 2003/04 comes out on top. That side finished top of the table with 94 points (8 clear of second place) with a plus 40 goal difference.
A repeat of those stats come next May would be very welcome indeed, although the overall standard in the second tier is probably higher now than then, making it a tough ask for the current squad to emulate their predecessors.
But hang on. What about Lambert’s promotion-winning squad of 2010/11 I hear you ask?
Ruddy, Drury, Barnett, Martin, Ward, Lappin, Crofts, Smith, Martin(C), Holt, Jackson etc. In game 11 (QPR away) they drew 0-0; had 20 points and were in 3rd place. My score is 2.5 (2003/04) – 2 (2010/11) and 2.5 (2014/15) – 2 (2010/11). I’ll leave you to work out the details!
I hope my little comparison exercise has been a momentary distraction from the eternal wait for league action to resume at Craven Cottage. Neil and the boys have made a great start but the road is long (especially up to Middlesborough) and they have many deeds of daring to perform if they are to reach the heights of the class of 2003/04.
The best of British to ‘em.
I may not agree totally with your scoring, but I would say that the 03/04 team had a few better players, e.g. Hucks vs Redmond, Malky vs Hooiveld, but this is where your argument falls short.
You are asking if it is the best squad, yet only compare a few of the players in the squad. If you want to compare squads, as your title suggests, you should also look at the other players. Would you really prefer the 03/04 strikers – when the backup to Roberts was Svensson – over the current squad, where the backup for Grabben (last season’s top scorer) is Hooper (who has scored in the Champions League), or would you pick the lack of quality in depth of the Midfield in 03/04 over the current team.
Even the defence of 03/04 – Drury, Fleming, Mackay, Edworthy – only had a young Shackell & Brennan in backup. we were just fortunate that the back 4 all played 40+ games each, otherwise it would probably have been a very different outcome to the season.
In summary, I think you have missed the point that we may have had better players or starting 11 in previous Championship seasons, but I can’t think of a time when we have had a stronger squad, across the 25 players at this level.
Interesting article but I’m not sure that the second tier can now be considered stronger than 2003-04 version.
Stewart Lewis says
Thought-provoking article and – as you say – a good time-filler while we wait for the real action to return.
Can’t help agreeing with the first two commenters. Our trump card this season will surely be the quality of replacements at our disposal when injuries, suspensions and loss of form require them. Hooper, Lafferty, the two Bennetts, Josh Murphy, O’Neil, Vadis, Garrido, Whittaker and more (not to mention perming two from Tettey, Johnson and Howson) – clearly a deeper squad than a decade before. This will compensate for the relative lack of star individuals – where Hucks in 2003-04 was peerless.
I’m shocked at the gulf that’s opened up between the Premiership and Championship. Yes, the Champ is physically demanding. But in terms of quality at both ends of the pitch, there’s no comparison now. Even an ordinary Prem team is MUCH harder to beat than almost any Champ one. I suspect the gap has widened in both directions: the Prem has got better, the Champ has declined.
As conclusive proof, I offer the position of Ipswich…
Russell S. says
*Squad? – I’d be amazed if anyone agreed with my scoring! Such comparisons are highly subjective of course and that’s the fun of them. It’s swings and roundabouts but while most would agree that the current squad looks ‘deeper’ on paper, most of the first 11 add-ons haven’t really proved their worth as yet. I might well do a follow up after the January window to re-assess the two squads then after suspensions, injuries and transfers (I would be surprised if Hooper is still around in 2015). Svensson (7 goals), McKenzie (9) and Crouch (4) provided excellent back-up up front while the combined 21 goals from Huckerby and Francis is unlikely to be matched by Hoolahan & Redmond!
*GazzaTCC – With more clubs having PL parachute dosh at hand now (I make at least 8 in that position), it’s arguable that most teams/squads are stronger overall than back then (even if I try to argue the opposite for us!). Also, looking at the table for 2003/4, there were more clubs who had spent less time in the 2nd tier (Gillingham, Crewe, Walsall, Preston) than those now (Brentford and Bournemouth – both doing very well at present).
*Stewart – I needed to eradicate that 2nd half in Estonia from my mind as quickly as possible and this seemed a good ‘cleanser’! That gulf is getting bigger but the likes of Southampton and Swansea prove it’s not impossible to cross with ‘a bit of cash’ and the right approach in the background (unlike say Cardiff and QPR) and on the pitch (unlike us last season). We did the double over Ipswich in 2003/4 – promotion and local bragging rights – doesn’t get much better than that.
@4 Russell. The parachute payments point is an interesting one. The “have nots” in the Championship moan about the unfairness of FFP when relegated teams get parachute payments as “a reward for failure”.
However, the theory of relegated clubs having an unfair advantage of parachute payments doesn’t actually seem to work to their advantage in reality, as very few actually “bounce back” at the first attempt. Typically, it’s one at most that makes an instant return.
All of this supports my theory that it’s not about how much cash you have, it’s about how you spend it. Just look at Cardiff and Fulham as cases of how not to do it.
The thing about the 2003/04 season that remains fresh in my memory is how they all worked so bloody hard for one another. They were a good example of a team that was, perhaps, greater than the sum of their parts.
Add a touch of flair to a side like that as we did with Hucks and you suddenly have the makings of a very good team indeed.
Which they were, an image of their Manager-resiliant, hard working, focused and very clear on their roles and responsibilities.
Russell S. says
*Ed – agreed. That of course is the added ingredient for success in a team sport – the bond and desire to fight and win for each other. Nigel Worthington clearly did a fine job in establishing that in his squad of 2003/4. Ironic that I wrote this the day before he left his job at York.