“It’s better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you’re a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt”. Well, there’s another bit of good advice I’m about to ignore. Still, life is short and the person who said it, Sam Clemens, was a pretty modest journalist writing for his local rag, the Hannibal Journal of Hannibal, Missouri.
And I have experience to draw on: 21 managers, desperate boardroom struggles, heroic and villainous players, fan euphoria and protests, incredible highs and gut-wrenching lows. No, not a year in the life of Sunderland FC, but parts of my half-century of supporting the Canaries.
In the dim mists of time I even donned the famous yellow and green, for Capital Canaries, in the giddy heights of Division 5 of the West Fulham Sunday League (with Mick Dennis, no less). So it’s a bit of a late start to my journalistic career, but I couldn’t turn down the money… I mean the invitation.
But what to write about? Some early ideas had to be abandoned, including Chris Hughton, A Norwich Great and Pure Football: What we can learn from Mick McCarthy. Finally I opted for something less contentious, namely the impact of Alex Neil, what it says about us and that elusive idea of the ‘Norwich Way.’
Neil’s impact on the field needs no new analysis – clear instructions to players, a settled back four, intelligence about the opposition, smart management of individuals and high expectations. He’s a natural. But just as striking – and perhaps just as significant – is his effect on us, the fans.
We clearly feel better because we’re winning. However, I sense there’s more to it than that, and I sensed it most strongly after the game at Huddersfield. There was frustration and anger among City fans – as we’ve seen many times before – but to a remarkable degree that frustration dissipated after Alex’s post-match remarks.
He was straightforward and composed, with no hint of the hysteria or sneakiness we’re used to seeing from others we won’t name. Yet his burning passion was unmistakable and we couldn’t help but warm to it.
On a night where we dropped potentially vital points, there was suddenly a new feeling. And if we get promotion, I believe it’ll continue.
For me, there were two equally dispiriting aspects of the Hughton era: the defensive mindset, yes, but also the disproportionate expectations that seemed to infect our fans. Slightly below mid-table in the Premier League was no longer a creditable achievement. Instead it was cause for anger and abuse.
I was deeply worried about the prospects for any future Norwich manager trying to operate in that environment. But I may have misjudged the cause.
Hughton’s character is a model of decency but his style brought out the negative in our fans. I always puzzled over why we applauded Paul Lambert for finishing 12th in the Prem, but derided Hughton for finishing 11th in an arguably tougher season.
The answer seems to lie in the manner of the regime; the style of play for sure, but equally the style of the manager. We forgave Lambert a bunch of mistakes and dodgy performances but forgave Hughton none. I suspect we’ll cut Alex some slack in the way we did Paul, to the huge benefit of our club.
Many would say it’s all about playing style – we were positive under Lambert, negative under Hughton and are now positive again, but I’m not sure that stands up to scrutiny.
The greatest commitment to attacking football wasn’t under Lambert or Alex Neil, but under Neil Adams, yet he didn’t come close to inspiring the fans as we’re now inspired. There’s something else – an evident commitment, heart and team spirit that supercedes structure and style. And that, perhaps, is the ‘Norwich Way’.
I believe we’ve got what it takes, and the collective spirit between players and fans will probably see us over the line this year. If so, credit will rightly go to Alex Neil. But I hope it won’t be forgotten that Neil Adams left us in seventh place – far better than most managers of relegated teams achieve – as well as bringing in some of the key players who are giving us a shot at regaining our Premiership status.
As for Sam Clemens and his advice – well, it’s too late for me now. But maybe I shouldn’t have written him off so lightly. These days we know him a bit better by his pen name – Mark Twain.