Here we go again then. High expectations. Disappointing results. Shrill voices raised in angry denunciation and … me, defending another manager.
Yet let’s do it differently this time. Please.
I seek not to revive old arguments or open new wounds. And, just as I think the knee-jerk response of some to call a Norwich manager a clown or clueless is unnecessarily destructive, perhaps my natural instinct to see the positive is blinkered too.
So lets all strive to be open-minded this time – me included – in the hope that we can have a sensible, temperate debate about the club we all care about.
There are some non-negotiable givens, though.
Because I have been closely exposed to the workings of other clubs for more than three decades as a professional observer with privileged access, I believe that ours is a well-run club owned by exceptionally good and caring folk.
My day-job doesn’t make my opinion worth more than anybody else’s but it has left me unable to feel anything but gratitude and admiration for Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones. And, in recent years, it has made me understand and appreciate the considerable achievements of the current board.
So when I saw Delia and her mum, Etty, watching the under-21s triumph against Spurs, I thought: “Marvellous.” Etty is well into her 90s. She had a new hip in the summer, suffered a serious set-back during her recuperation, battled back to full(ish) health and just would not pass up the opportunity to spend a fresh autumn evening watching City’s youngsters.
And then, this weekend, when I called in (to flog a spare ticket) at the gathering organised by the Northern Canaries in Sheffield before the Wednesday match, it was utterly magnificent to see four board members drop in too. Delia happily posed as the extra in a hundred selfies, David McNally spoke with complete candour to anyone who had a question, Stephan Phillips fretted about the match and Michael Wynn Jones plonked himself down at a table with fans and enjoyed his pint.
I do know a couple of other clubs whose directors would have done something similar. AFC Wimbledon, in which I hold a share, were founded by fans and there has never been any “them and us”, only “we”. Similarly, Portsmouth’s current manifestation, forged in grim adversity, is “in the hands of the fans”. Supporters on the board do, indeed, drink with “ordinary supporters” before games.
But that’s it. I don’t think there are many or any other clubs where the owners and directors believe it is important, valuable and fun to spend time with us plebs. I don’t find that patronising, I find it affirms everything I feel about our club. Compare it, for instance, with Ipswich, where the owner won’t allow TV cameras to capture his image – if he thinks they have got even the back of his head in shot, he bullies broadcasters into destroying that bit of coverage. No, I can’t imagine him popping into the Walkely Cottage, Sheffield, for a natter with the fans – either of them.
So if you think Delia and Michael are crooks or charlatans of some sort, or that they don’t really care or understand, then you and I will never agree and I can’t be bothered with you. It would be like trying to reason with nutters who swear Elvis is working at the Vauxhall Caravan Park on the Acle New Road.
If, however, you know that Delia and Michael have always striven to do the best for the club, then that is a proper starting point to consider the work of Neil Adams, whom they appointed in the strident belief that he would be the perfect antidote to the poison which seeped into the club as we fought among ourselves about Chris Hughton.
So let’s look at some of the criticisms Adams is facing now.
“He has no plan B”. This is an unthinking barb based on what was perceived about the last bloke. NA’s plan A is 4-4-2. It brought defeat at Wolves and so he switched to plan B: 4-2-3-1. He used that deployment until Cameron Jerome came on at Cardiff and made an immediate impact. After that extraordinarily exhilarating triumph NA wanted, understandably, to accommodate Jerome as well as leading scorer Lewis Grabban and so switched back to 4-4-2. At Hillsborough he went to plan C – a midfield diamond. And, at Hillsborough as we have at other games, he tinkered with the formation during the game. He does have more than one plan. It’s just that they’ve all stopped working!
“Playing a diamond on such a wide pitch was a blunder.” OK, that one could be right. But we can’t know, because we don’t know what would have happened with another formation. My view is that we went with a diamond precisely because it was a wide pitch. A flat 4-4-2 would have seen the midfield stretched thinly across the pitch and so would have left scant cover in front of the centre of the defence. Starting without “wingers” blunted our threat but presented an obstacle to the opposition too. We’ve been appallingly vulnerable to counter-attacks and if Adams decided it was necessary to be more solid for once, then I’m relieved.
“But we attack so slowly.” Yep. But there’s a reason. The German senior team and other national sides (under-20s and so on) subscribe to the theory that, if you win possession, the opposition will drop back behind the ball in under 10 seconds. So you should launch a quick attack in less than 10 seconds. If you can’t, then keep possession safely in your own half and then build slowly until you can deliver a probing pass. We can’t get going in under 10 seconds because the opposition is usually already organised, with two ranks of players across the front of their area, when we start our attacks. It’s impossible (and, according to the Germans, wrong) to bomb forward into that lot. You won’t find a way through.
“The opposition manage to attack us quickly, though.” Yep, because we’ve got nearly everyone pushing up in attack. This is where I think NA’s approach has been flawed. If we play 4-2-3-1, the men in the three are always attack-minded players and at least one of the men in the two (usually Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey) is encouraged to join in the forward surge. Martin Olsson is expected to provide the width on the left of forward sorties, Cafu or Whittaker gets down the right …. and there’s very few bodies left to defend. If we play 4-4-2 it develops into a 2-2-6 at times. Whichever formation NA adopts, it involves throwing as many forward as possible and leaving Michael Turner and his centreback partner lonelier than an Ipswich fan at midweek away game.
“Neeyul is inexperienced”. Yep. So was Mike Walker. So was Jose Mourinho when he started, come to that. But NA has a well-honed football intelligence, a genuine affinity with the club’s traditions and culture – and a support mechanism of coaches and sports science. He is clearly learning on the job, but there is no guarantee at all that someone else would have led us to four consecutive, soul-lifting away wins.
“But it’s all gone pear-shaped since we won at Blackpool”. There are folk whose friendship I value and whose opinions I respect who believe this, but I disagree. I don’t think performances have been at all bad. But then I don’t think the earlier performances were as convincing as we allowed ourselves to believe.
If Grabban’s penalty at Fulham had been a millimetre lower… if Jerome’s best effort at Wednesday had been a tad firmer … But then, if Daryl Murphy had not squandered a point-blank header at Portman Road… if John Ruddy had not quite conjured that match-changing save at Cardiff.
As the cliché goes: “If” is the biggest word in football. But there are some certainties. One is another cliché: in the Championship, anyone can beat anyone else. We knew that before the season started, forgot it when things were going well and have been forced to remember it in the recent run of poor results.
The good news is that everyone else is learning it is true too. We’ve only taken three points from the last five fixtures but nobody has broken clear. We’re still in the pack, and the next good run we put together will lift us through those whose turn it is to falter.
Another certainty is that we do have a formidable squad. I know this because that is the assessment of our opponents. Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe told friends that “Norwich will walk this division once they get going properly”. He said it after securing a draw at Carrow Road. Or how about this appraisal, from the EADT: “… a visiting side clearly a level above in terms of pace and quality on the ball”.
One more certainty. The players are confident and united. According to one insider who doesn’t always report positively to me: “They are a really good bunch, most of them; completely sure they have enough wins in them to be in the promotion mix; sure the goals will come again.”
So, like the indefatigable Etty, I’ll keep supporting. See you on Friday night.