Upon his arrival Alex Neil acknowledged that part of his new challenge was to cope with an environment where expectation levels are sky high – a world away from those he managed so expertly in Hamilton.
But, just three weeks into his Norwich tenure. I would love to know if, looking back and with hand on heart, he really understood the demands that would be placed upon him by some quarters of the Canary Nation.
On the face of it, two wins, one draw and a defeat from his opening four games is a decent return. Or so you would think.
But already it feels as if, in some quarters, the die has been cast. And it helps no-one.
Yesterday’s point, against a Birmingham side that have seen a commendable turnaround in form since the arrival of Gary Rowett, may not have scored highly in terms of artistic impression but may just represent a mini turning point: a clean sheet borne of a solid defence.
And that defence was one of Alex Neil’s making. Not one that had been tweaked, not one that had been subject to minor changes, but one that was reconstructed after some major surgery.
The call to bring Sebastien Bassong in from the cold was a massive one – a ‘stinker’ from the Cameroonian would have played straight into the hands of the ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ brigade – but it paid off. His partnership with Russell Martin – another brave and unexpected move – proved solid and, dare I say it, water-tight.
And how many of us saw that coming? Yet together they formed the core of a defence that earned its first clean sheet since mid-December – in the 5-0 thumping of Huddersfield.
Steven Whittaker’s return to right-back, after the trials and tribulations of last weekend, was a sensible one although, in truth, was the only show in town given Martin’s move to centre-back. But it was also a public vote of confidence from one Scot to another.
For Whittaker to have been left out of the starting XI, even if only to remove him from the firing line, would have sent out a negative signal. For some it would have been confirmation of their view of his abilities; for the Scot himself it would have been another dent to an already brittle confidence.
But now we have one whose belief in his own ability is off the floor and on the up, and who will be itching to be selected for next Saturday.
While all and sundry would have obviously loved to head home down the A14 with three points, the ‘nil’ against was a very welcome shot in the arm – particularly for the back five, who will have derived considerable pride from yesterday’s solidity.
As per footballing tradition (unless your name is Louis van Gaal), good teams are usually constructed starting from the back. Only when the base is solid can a team then look to be inventive and creative. And that, judging by events at St Andrews, is the route being taken by Neil.
From an attacking perspective there was clearly plenty of room for improvement but when priority number one was to defend soundly as a unit and eliminate the individual errors that’s part of the trade-off.
Howvever, the change in personnel in the attacking third was also subject to criticism, even before a ball was kicked.
Many were quick to seize upon the manager’s decision to omit Cameron Jerome and Gary Hooper in favour of Wes Hoolahan and Lewis Grabban but, as the manager explained afterwards, there was sound logic behind it.
Neil clearly favours a one up top, one in just behind approach, with Jerome and Hooper having been the chosen two to take on those respective roles so far. He was also keen to have a good, long look at Wes in the Hooper role.
So, Wes for Hoops made sense, especially after the latter’s difficult afternoon last Saturday. And, given his clear perception of Wes as a ‘number 10’ it also explains why he didn’t consider handing the Irishman a centre-mid role last weekend.
The decision to leave out Jerome was, by the sound of it, largely out of the manager’s hands – a ‘tight hamstring’ limiting his ability to train in the week – and some impressive shifts on the fields of Colney were enough to see the gig handed to Grabban.
Again, no conspiracy, just a sound footballing decision based on making the best choice of those options he had available. It also tells us that he sees Hooper not as an out-and-out striker but as one who also operates best in the hole betwixt midfield and the front man.
So, Grabban and Wes it was.
Of course, that particular part of the equation didn’t quite go as the manager had dreamt it on Friday night but still it was a plan based on footballing logic.
As an attacking force there will clearly be better days ahead and, for all the faults of late, lack of goals has not been a particular issue. It was technically two points dropped but, in the spirit of plucking out the positives, a clean sheet and a point ensured that City stayed in touch with the pack.
With Jonny Howson available again next Saturday and with a little bit of pride restored after last week’s denting things are still set fair for a crack at the play-offs. And with no-one questioning the ‘hunger’ this week perhaps one or two lessons have been learned.
This season is not over yet.